Grocery strike looms, thousands ready to walk off the job

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PHOENIX -- The signs have been distributed and the clock is ticking toward the deadline. Thousands of grocery store employees across the state are ready to walk off the job.

Contract negotiations between two chains -- Fry's and Safeway -- and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99 have been going on for the past year. Now the deadline to reach an agreement is Friday at 6 p.m.

The issue at the center of this is health insurance. Right now, store employees don't pay premiums. Under the company's proposed contract, new employees would pay between $5 and $15 per week, depending on the coverage plan. Current employees would not be affected; their health-care would still be free.

Officials with the union, which represents about 25,000 hourly workers at the two grocery chains, including clerks, stockers, meat cutters, produce workers and baggers, say a strike is imminent.

The stores are gearing up for it by hiring replacement workers. In addition,Safeway says it has entered into an agreement with Fry's Food Stores to coordinate "defensive measures" if unionized workers go on strike against only one of the companies.

While the workers are ready to walk out if it comes to that, not all of them support the strike. Not only are they concerned about the ramifications of being out of a work in this economy, they also don't want to be jobless with the holidays right around the corner. They are calling for a vote of the membership on the proposed contracts.

Others, however, say they have to band together and stand their ground.

"I don't believe there's a good time for a strike for anybody," said Larry Moss, a Fry's employee. "The company loses. The employees lose. But at some point, you have to draw a line in the sand, and this seems to be that point."

The workers who do strike will be paid $100 per week by the union.