Contract bargaining has stalled, opening the possibility of a strike Wednesday by more than 1,600 warehouse and trucking workers at the distribution center supplying about 245 Safeway supermarkets in California, Nevada and Hawaii, a company official said today.

"We've met about 25 times," said Mike Sorobey, vice president of Summit Logistics Inc., a branch of Toronto-based Tibbett & Britten, which delivers groceries to Safeway stores in northern California as well as the two other states. "We"re at the crossroads right now. We still don't know what they want."

Teamsters Local 439 officials _ representing the workers based at the warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 65 miles east of San Francisco _ did not respond to phone queries on the situation today.

But the unionized workers, their representatives and Summit negotiators have rejected a variety of previous proposals and offers coming from both sides, Sorobey said. As the contract expired Sept. 27, Local 439 members authorized a strike, but he said bargaining had continued until about 4 a.m. last Friday.

Although no formal contract offer was presented Saturday, Local 439 rejected a five-year proposal that the company had suggested the union's local bargaining committee could adopt and formulate as its own contract deal, Sorobey said.

He said that Summit, which operates two Canadian and one U.S. warehouse-distribution centers, had rejected an early proposal from Local 439 that would have boosted the company's labor-related costs by about 300 percent in five years.

The union, he said, had proposed pay and benefit increases, reduced warehouse productivity standards, shifting truck drivers from per-delivery to hourly pay rates, and a slash in weekend work time by 25 percent to 50 percent. The weekend work reduction would have forced Summit to hire hundreds more workers to handle the trade's typically busiest time of the week, he said.

The union has alleged that Summit has created unsafe working conditions, harsh disciplinary procedures and low wages under the expired three-year contract covering 1,100 to 1,200 warehouse employees and about 450 drivers.

Sorobey claimed Summit, which began its operations in the warehouse in 1997, has enhanced working conditions to the point of creating "an outstanding safety record here."

He also said that Local 439 members have even rejected an offer that was negotiated by an agent from their International Brotherhood of Teamsters headquarters.

On Oct. 3, the members rejected a five-year contract offering 4 percent pay hikes annually across all worker classifications, a 10-cent-an-hour increase in pension benefits and a guarantee that health insurance costs would stay level, Sorobey said.

Summit, he said, rejected one counter proposal for 20-percent wage raises across the board, a 72-percent boost to pension benefits and lower productivity standards that would push labor costs up by about 20 percent, or $60 million, in the first year alone.

Sorobey said the last union demand is to cut the warehouse workers' productivity rates by 10 percent. The company has had the rates studied but agreed to another study to determine fairness, and the union has yet to define what it means by "a better working environment," he said.

The company has said its warehouse workers, on average, already earn more than $40,000 a year plus an additional $18,000 a year in pension and other benefits from the company.

Claiming a shortage of details in union demands even under federal mediation, Sorobey said, "We don't know where we're going."

By Worth Wren Jr.
StoreAlliance.com