Grocery deadline looms

With the stagnant economy hanging like a dark cloud over the negotiating table, bargainers for two leading regional supermarket chains and the Food and Commercial Workers union are coming down to the wire in contract talks.

Giant Food and Safeway stores in the Baltimore-Washington area are scheduled to close tomorrow morning while employees meet for a vote on new contracts that would cover an estimated 25,200 workers. If the contracts are not ratified, members of Baltimore Local 27 and Washington Local 400 could strike.


Tom Russow, president of the Baltimore local, said yesterday that the two sides were "still considerably apart on several major issues," including wages, health care and the length of the contract.

He said he expected the crunch to come tonight.


A spokesman for Giant declined to comment on the negotiations, but Chairman Israel Cohen expressed confidence last week that a settlement would be reached. A Safeway spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Russow said both sides were making preparations for a strike, but there were strong indications that the union and the companies are being moderate in their expectations because of economic pressures that have taken a heavy toll on grocery store profits.

Jeff Metzger, publisher of the trade journal Food World, said last week that he doubts it will come down to a strike.

"You have cool heads here. You have professional negotiators. You have realists in terms of what's happening," Mr. Metzger said. "You're not looking at a situation where someone's coming in with a loaded gun."

Mr. Russow said the two chains were not proposing painful concessions but were seeking cost containment.

"I think we're getting in range, but there's always that last little bit," he said.

Local 27 represents about 6,200 employees at Giant and 1,000 at Safeway stores in the Baltimore area, Mr. Russow said. Local 400 represents about 12,000 Giant and 6,000 Safeway workers in Washington and its suburbs.

A third regional chain, Super Fresh, also has a union contract expiring, but that pact has been extended while the Giant and Safeway talks continue.


"Once we get the big boys out of the way, we'll concentrate on them," Mr. Russow said.

The union leader indicated that his side was well aware of how severely the economy has hammered profits at the grocery chains, noting that Giant has reported five consecutive quarters of decreased earnings and has seen its stock price cut almost in half over the past two years.

The union also has to be concerned about Safeway's future in the region. Mr. Metzger said Safeway has struggled over the past 18 months, fanning industry rumors that the company might want to sell its Eastern division and concentrate on its California base. Safeway has denied the reports, he said.

Mr. Metzger said he expected the union to accept a far more modest settlement than it did in 1989, when it won a $1.90-an-hour increase phased in over three years. This year's increase would likely be a modest 3 percent to 5 percent, he said, with the companies gaining some flexibility on work rules.

Mr. Russow did not get into specifics, but he agreed that "things have changed drastically since 1989."

"It's probably the worst time to bargain a contract I've seen in 35 years," he said.