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Published: Saturday, 11/23/2002

Meijer workers reject latest offer

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Eight weeks after a labor agreement expired at Meijer, Inc. stores in Toledo, unionized workers appear ambivalent about the possibility of a strike.

“I have a child to support,” Stacey Snyder, a clerk at the chain's Northwood store, said yesterday after a meeting called by Local 911 of the United Food & Commercial Workers.

By a 4 to 1 ratio, about 400 union members rejected the company's latest contract terms and gave their leaders authority to take whatever action that they believe would be most effective, including a strike, boycott, informational picketing, or leafleting.

In individual interviews and discussions, members expressed mixed feelings about a strike.

Jefferson Stephens, Local 911 president, said the union first planned to notify executives of the Grand Rapids, Mich., chain of the latest development. The rejected pact was only slightly different from one turned down by workers Oct. 1, Mr. Stephens said.

“We'll be doing something next week,” he said last night after the members voted. He said the union would try to get the company back to the bargaining table and let the union members know Monday what action may be taken.

The local represents 1,200 workers at four Toledo Meijer stores. A four-year labor contract at the stores expired Sept. 21.

Meijer spokesman John Zimmerman said the grocery-department store chain plans no further contract sweeteners.

“Our final offer is our final offer,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “We gave them a great package.”

Union leaders disagree, saying executives are seeking to double the amount employees pay for health insurance over the next three years to $150 a month for families.

The chain has proposed 2 percent pay increases annually in the five-year pact, but is seeking cuts in prescription drug and vision care benefits as well, union officials said. Top cashiers at Meijer make $9.50 an hour, compared to $12.30 at Kroger and Food Town, which have the largest share of supermarket sales in metro Toledo.

The company spokesman said employees would pay 60 percent more toward health insurance premiums, which have been implemented at its stores elsewhere and at company headquarters because of rising costs.

Company officials point out that the chain competes not only with the largely unionized grocery industry but with nonunion discount stores such as Kmart and Wal-Mart, Inc., which is moving into metro Toledo.

Some union members accuse Meijer of hardball tactics by implementing the contract terms over union objections, barring Local 911 representatives from stores, and giving employees forms resigning their union membership.

“We've got to take a stand,” Theresa Bryant, a cashier at the Meijer at the Oregon-Northwood border, said yesterday after a union meeting. “I've been there 10 years and I'm tired of their garbage.”

But other workers were more cautious, questioning how they would pay for health care during a strike.

Before calling a strike, Mr. Stephens, the union leader, said he wanted to make sure of widespread support. The union is eager to avoid a repeat of 1994 when workers returned to their jobs with few gains after an eight-week strike. Many crossed picket lines to work.



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