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Published: Thursday, 10/3/2002

Meijer union asks OK to act after `No' on contract

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The labor union representing almost 1,200 local employees of Meijer, Inc., expects approval this week from its international union to conduct economic actions against the company. Union leaders called federal mediators yesterday after employees overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal Tuesday.

Action such as a boycott or picket at the four greater Toledo stores in the grocery and general merchandise superstore chain is likely within a week of approval from the international union, said Jeff Stephens, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 911.

He called a strike “highly possible” and said the dispute probably will “drag on a while and get close to the holiday season.”

Further talks had not been scheduled yesterday. The last contract expired Sept. 21 but was extended. Employees were working without a contract yesterday, however.

Company spokesman John Zimmerman said it was the union's turn to make the next move. The union president said it was the company's turn to make another offer.

The company intends to implement Sunday the terms the employees rejected Tuesday. The proposal was not endorsed by the union bargaining committee.

It provided for raises of about 2 percent a year to employees whose pay scale ranges from $5.50 an hour for a starting bagger to $14.50 an hour to a journeyman meat cutter, Mr. Stephens said.

It also would nearly double an employee's share of health insurance premiums, to 20 percent by 2005, and would boost drug co-payments by employees to 20 percent of the prescription cost, or at least $10, from a $5 co-pay, he said. About half of the union members are enrolled in the insurance program, he added.

Mr. Zimmerman of Meijer said the management was surprised by the worker rejection and were uncertain of the sticking points.

“We gave it our best,” he said.

He called the wage increases significant, but the union president said the proposed scale lags those at Kroger Co. and Food Town Supermarkets. Meijer officials have said that the company's wages cannot be compared with those of grocery stores because much of its shelf space is devoted to general merchandise and most area competitors in that sector are nonunion and thus pay less. Still, Mr. Stephens said general merchandise is more profitable to Meijer than its food sales.

The union's relationship and history with Meijer is the poorest of the 50 employers that the local deals with, Mr. Stephens said. In 1998, much uncertainty and talk of a strike preceded approval of a contract.

The vote this week on the company proposal drew only about a third of the eligible workers. An exact count was not released, but Mr. Stephens said more than 400 voted to reject the offer and 13 favored it. In that same vote, union leaders were given approval to call a strike.

Paibool G. Ballmer, a sales clerk employed at Meijer for two years, said he did not vote because of conflicts with his studies at the University of Toledo. But he said he favors the strike authorization.

“I felt as though faithful employees were cut out of the benefits of this institution,” he said. He expected bigger raises and lower employee health-care costs.

A Meijer employee who declined to give her name said she found the offer so insulting that she felt like crying after hearing the details. In addition to the financial package, she was disappointed that the proposal would end the practice of allowing employees to carry over personal days from year to year.



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