A grocery worker talks about potential strike, lockout

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On October 20, talks between grocery workers and Safeway about a new contract broke down only a few hours after they'd started up again -- and later that week, King Soopers employees were given a letter strongly implying that if Safeway staffers struck, they'd be locked out. It's a scenario familiar to 22-year Safeway veteran Andrea Karr, albeit one that was reversed thirteen years ago. "In 1996, King Soopers went on strike, and Safeway locked out workers," she says.

That was a tough time for Karr. "The average grocery store worker tends to work paycheck to paycheck," she says. "So even if you know there's going to be a strike or you're going to be locked out, no one's ever really prepared for it." Still, anyone locked out this time around will be in worse shape than she was. Back then, "we received unemployment benefits, but the laws have changed since then. House Bill 1170 would have put the benefits back, but Bill Ritter rejected it. So presently, anybody who's locked out won't get unemployment benefits, even though you don't have any choice about being locked out. You're stripped of that choice."

It's no surprise, given her reference to specific legislation, that Karr isn't just any grocery worker. She's served as a union steward in the past, and while she doesn't have a formal title with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 right now, she was quoted in a UFCW release decrying Ritter's veto of 1170 in May. Yet she certainly has put in her time in the aisles, and behind the counter. She's spent her career at Safeway, starting out as a deli clerk at age 25 and serving in assorted meat-department capacities before transitioning into her current role, inventory control clerk at the Englewood store near the intersections of Hampden and Logan.

Although wage increases have been part of all the proposals put forward by union representatives, pension provisions and health insurance are even most important to Karr, who's upset at the prospect of this safety net disappearing beneath her.

"In the 22 years I've worked with the company, I've taken wage freezes, taken minimal increases, because I've always tried to keep my pension and healthcare in line," she says. "But now they want to take my pension and my healthcare away from me regardless. I've invested 22 years in this company, and that tells me they're not willing to invest in me."

Like many union supporters, Karr points with irritation to the profits being earned by the big grocery chains, and the hefty salaries paid to their executives, as well as an increased workload in the wake of retirements by people who wanted to make sure they got their full pensions before a new, and less generous, contract kicked in. Indeed, she's so frustrated that in lieu of what she considers to be a fair deal, she says she'll consider a career change.

"I'm 47-years old, and trying to find something else would be difficult," she says. "But everything around me is going up in cost -- and now they're trying to take away my pension and my healthcare. It's not a company I'd want to stay with if they win and take those two things away. What would be the purpose of me continuing to say with them then?"

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