There will be no strike at New Mexico Smith’s Food & Drug locations in the near future – and an icy winter storm may have helped get a new collective bargaining agreement over the finish line.
Smith’s workers on Friday night ratified a new deal that was hammered out in large part during a marathon session Feb. 2 and 3, when representatives from both sides found themselves stranded at an Albuquerque hotel, according to Greg Frazier, president of the New Mexico chapter of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 2,500 Smith’s employees across the state.
“We started on Wednesday morning at 9 o’clock, and we started seeing the snow coming down in the afternoon,” Frazier said. ” … We were stuck in the ice storm at the Marriott Hotel, and so was the company. … It was a 16-, 17-hour day and night.”
The new agreement – which Smith’s said represents a $25 million investment on the company’s part – gave union members much of what they were seeking: wage increases, safety considerations, vacation pay protections and a sick leave policy that Frazier described as the “best thing” that came of the contract renegotiations.
The union and Kroger, Smith’s parent company, began negotiations in December, ahead of the last contract’s late January expiration. Workers sought an extra $2 per hour, which would match the hazard pay the company offered at the start of the pandemic but discontinued after a few months; an armed police presence outside stores; additional cashiers to assist customers and a process to avoid losing banked vacation pay. In late January, union officials signaled that the organization was considering asking members to approve a strike, but negotiators bought themselves extra time by agreeing to a temporary extension of the old contract.
On the week of the storm, Frazier said the union was planning a strike vote on Friday. Instead, the sides emerged much closer to an agreement.
Ultimately, the pact made union members “real happy,” Frazier said. New terms – which will affect Smith’s retail clerks and meat associates at 24 stores in Albuquerque, Farmington, Grants, Santa Fe, Taos, White Rock and Los Alamos – include:
- Across-the-board pay raises of at least $1 per hour, and more in some cases depending on workers’ classifications.
- The establishment of a safety committee with company and union members that will address security issues.
- Vacation pay protections that will allow workers to cash out unused vacation time rather than lose it. Frazier said staffing issues have made it difficult for workers to schedule vacations during the pandemic.
- A new sick pay policy that will allow workers to accrue sick pay about 64 hours – or eight full days – per year in addition to vacation pay.
Starting in July, private New Mexico employers will be required to provide sick leave. But Frazier said Smith’s isn’t simply converting existing paid vacation time to sick leave – instead, employees will accrue both benefits alongside each other.
“This is going to be new money,” Frazier said. ” … We’re not expecting to see other employers handle it that way.”
In a news release Friday, Smith’s President Kenny Kimball said company leaders are “pleased” that the agreement was reached.
“Under the terms of the new agreements, retail clerks and meat associates will receive significant pay increases, affordable and comprehensive health care, and continued investment in their pension funds,” Kimball said in the release. “The new agreements come after thoughtful and productive work by both the company and the union bargaining committees. We thank our associates for ratifying the agreements and for the excellent service they provide for our customers every day.”
The new contract, which was approved by about 70% of voting union members, is already in effect.
Frazier said he believes a 10-day strike in January by Denver-area workers at King Soopers, another Kroger subsidiary, played a major role in the negotiations.
“We got the identical language that Denver obtained, and so that played a big part,” he said. “… It was a good time to be addressing the problems.”