ARVADA — Union workers at King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado voted 60 percent to 40 percent Saturday to approve a contract written by a federal mediator after eight months of fruitless negotiations.
About 7,600 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 were eligible to vote by mail last month. Union spokesman Dave Minshall said a little more than half of the ballots were returned.
Rejection of the contract would have authorized a strike, which union officials said would have forced the stores’ parent company, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., back to the bargaining table.
The union’s negotiating committee had recommended rejecting the contract, but Kroger has said a vote against the proposal would put the company’s last offer on the table and push the two sides “to the dangerous edge of a full-blown labor dispute.”
“This is very, very heartbreaking,” said 22-year King Soopers employee Gloria Landau, a union negotiator.
Landau, who voted against the proposal, said she fears losing her job to new employees who will be hired at lower wages and will take longer to reach the top pay scale. Current employees will also start paying for some of their health insurance.
Landau, a 38-year-old mother of three, accused King Soopers of scaring workers into voting for the contract.
“The corporation ran a very good campaign. They held a captive audience,” she added.
King Soopers spokesman Trail Daugherty, however, said approval of the contract will allow the company to survive in the intensely competitive climate created by big discount stores that also sell groceries.
“We are very pleased and thank our associates for ratifying the settlement option,” Daugherty said. “We are also very pleased that a labor dispute has been avoided and that our employees continue to be well paid and have affordable benefits.”
The union has also been negotiating with Safeway and Albertsons grocery stores in Colorado since last August. All parties agreed to continue talks after the contract expired Sept. 11.
In November, Joe Hansen, national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, canceled a vote, already under way, saying the health-care provisions would harm employees.
Negotiators for King Soopers and its employees then asked federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh to draft a proposed contract. The 11,000 union members with Safeway and Albertsons decided against seeking Beckenbaugh’s help and were awaiting the outcome of the Kroger vote before contract talks resume.
Anna Flynn, 60, a 38-year Safeway employee, said she and her fellow negotiators will fight the kind of proposal King Soopers workers approved.
“Everything about it is wrong. It’s forcing people out of health care into the working poor,”
Union spokesman Minshall said the provisions giving new workers lower starting pay and benefits would take effect at midnight Saturday. He said current workers will start feeling the effects of having to pay for their insurance in about a month.
Daugherty said the insurance premiums will range from $5 to $15 a week, depending on whether a worker is single or married with a family.
Last year, grocery workers in Southern California approved a contract with similar provisions for new employees after a 41/2-month lockout and strike.