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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the city's three major supermarket chains - Schnuck Markets, Dierbergs Markets, and Shop 'n Save Warehouse Foods - may be facing a strike by a total of more than 10,000 workers as early as next week.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union overwhelmingly rejected a four-year contract proposal, which offered a raise of 75 cents an hour over three years - 25 cents a year - plus a 20-cent-an-hour bonus once ratification took place. The defeat set the stage for a strike vote that could come next Tuesday. It would be the first supermarket strike in St. Louis.

Union officials said that if two-thirds of the employees authorize a strike, they will immediately begin picketing one of the three chains; the chains say that in that event, they will lock out unionized employees and hire replacement workers.

However, the Post-Dispatch reports that if there is not a two-thirds vote in favor of a strike, the defeated contract would eventually take effect "after formalities are completed." The defeated contract proposal has been termed the "last, best offer" by the chains.
KC's View:
One of the really interesting parts of the defeated proposal was the piece that not only required workers to take on a greater share of health care costs, but also refused to cover spouses who work at other companies that offer health insurance.

We are told by people in the know that this piece was specifically targeted at Wal-Mart, and the growing disparity between the health insurance provided by the non-union Bentonville Behemoth and that offered by traditional, unionized grocery chains.

This is an argument that is extremely timely.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Wal-Mart makes new hourly workers wait six months to get benefits, and doesn't cover its retirees at all. Its deductibles can be as high as $1,000, and won't cover pre-existing conditions in the first year of coverage. And Wal-Mart doesn't cover things like flu shots, eye exams, childhood vaccinations, and chiropractic services. As a result, Wal-Mart's spending on health care benefits for each of its employees was roughly $3,500, or a third less than the rest of the nation's retail industry.

Retailers like those in St. Louis are, frankly, fed up with having to deal with providing coverage to their employees' spouses who happen to work at Wal-Mart. Their health care costs go up, they deal with the unions on this issue, while Wal-Mart's costs go down.

Now, there will be those who will suggest that traditional chains got themselves into this mess, and that it is not up to Wal-Mart to get them out of it. And we would agree with that.

But we believe this why we are going to see increasing pressure by the unions on organizing Wal-Mart employees, and it is a pitched battle that is going to get extremely bloody. And whole almost nobody on the chain side is going to admit it on the record, they'd love to see the UFCW succeed in this effort.

There is no easy answer to this problem. It's a mess. (And there's plenty more on this contentious issue down in the "Your Views" section.)