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2:22 PM Sat, Feb. 16th

Update: strike averted

Health insurance key issue for Smith’s, Safeway employees

UPDATE: According to sources at Smith's and Safeway stores, an agreement has been reached and there will be no strike today.

KINGMAN - If you head over to Smith's or to one of Kingman's two Safeway stores tonight, don't be surprised to see a picket line in front of the building.

That's because 6 p.m. marks the deadline for management to reach a contract agreement with United Food & Commercial Local 99, the union representing workers of both grocery chains in Arizona.

According to Associated Press reports, the chains' existing contract expired Oct. 31, with workers and management unable to come to an agreement on a new contract. While the union has been seeking higher wages and greater benefits for its members, its main obstacle to reaching an agreement has been the issue of healthcare - namely, management wants workers to pay a greater share of the cost, which union leader Jim McLaughlin has called unacceptable.

"We've been clear to the employers as to what an acceptable offer is," McLaughlin told the Arizona Republic last Friday. "They know what it is, but they have refused to cooperate."

Signs placed on the doors at Smith's and Safeway stores throughout the state have advertised their possible need for temporary non-union help if their employees do, in fact, walk off the job tonight. The Miner attempted to contact local store managers for comment on their preparations, but was either referred to corporate communications representatives or simply left on hold.

Safeway spokeswoman Cathy Kloos also did not return phone calls by press time Thursday, but she did send out a news release stating that both Safeway and Fry's Food Stores, which is also under threat of a strike, have entered into a mutual aid pact to protect against "whipsaw" strike tactics. A whipsaw strike occurs when union employees of a multi-employer bargaining group (in this case, several separate supermarket chains) strike only against certain employers within the group, sometimes switching from one employer to another.

In other words, if workers choose to strike against Fry's but not Safeway or vice-versa, the unaffected chain would come to the other's aid to ensure customers still receive service. What that aid might be, however, was unclear. Kloos's release merely said the pact would provide for "certain defensive measures."

Kloos added that the agreement does not impact either grocery chain's ability to independently negotiate with the union.

"Safeway entered into this agreement as a defensive measure to protect our company in the event of a strike by Local 99," Kloos said. "Safeway remains committed to negotiating fair and competitive labor agreements that serve the mutual interests of our employees and our company".

Neither of Kingman's two other chain grocery stores, Wal-Mart and Bashas', will be affected by the pending strike.