Safeway shelves may go stark

The union representing employees at Northern California’s largest supermarket chain, Safeway, is threatening to strike as early as next week if negotiators can’t meet a Saturday contract deadline.

The Safeway employees affected work mainly in food services, meat departments and general merchandise areas, meaning employees would still be working at checkout lines but shelves and deli counters may go bare.

According to a spokeswoman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 101, union members will vote Sunday and Monday to authorize a strike. If workers approve, picketing could begin as early as next week. A strike would affect about 25,000 employees in Northern California and the union speculated that checkout workers might join the picket lines as well.

“With negotiations moving slowly with Safeway, we have moved from a strike being improbable to a strike being possible,” union President Mike Borstel said in a statement.

Pleasonton-based Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling said he could not comment on whether the supermarket chain was preparing for a strike, but he did say officials were hopeful that the contract dispute would be worked out on the negotiating table. “We’re negotiating, and will be through the week, and we’re hopeful that we’ll reach an agreement that makes sense for our company and our employees,” Dowling said.

The supermarket chain operates 244 stores in Northern California, 15 stores in San Francisco and 19 stores in San Mateo County, according to the company.

The contract dispute comes in the middle of the holiday shopping season and both sides said they are wary of a labor dispute.

The union recently agreed on contracts with two other Northern California supermarket chains: Raleys and Save Mart, which operates Albertsons and Lucky supermarkets in Northern California. The agreements gave workers raises and eliminated employee-paid premiums on health care among other concessions. The union called on Safeway to go with the same contract, but Dowling said the corporation couldn’t just blindly accept the terms offered under the Save Mart and Raleys agreements.

Four years ago, employees walked out of the company’s Vons and Pavilions chains in a Southern California strike. The strike lasted nearly five months and Safeway reported more than $100 million in losses. Supporters in Northern California also boycotted a different Safeway location throughout San Francisco every weekend during that strike.

bbegin@examiner.com

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