Grocery workers around the region finish voting Saturday on whether to allow a strike if contract negotiations fail with Fred Meyer, QFC, Albertsons and Safeway.

The final votes from Baker City will be added to those of union workers in the Portland and Salem areas, who already voted in favor of authorizing a strike.

Strike authorization wouldn’t mean picket lines at your local grocery store are inevitable. It would give union officials permission to call a strike if negotiators deadlock. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 represents 18,000 grocery workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

“There are some issues still remaining, and the most visceral of those is wages,” said Kelley McAllister, communications director for UFCW Local 555. “Our members simply aren’t making enough money to survive and thrive in their communities.”

A Fred Meyer representative said the company is offering larger wage increases, in absolute terms, than those approved by the union in the last two contracts. 

“We’ve also agreed to a minimum hours guarantee, so that’s a new thing that we’ve put on the table to help benefit our associates,” said Jeffery Temple, director of corporate affairs for Fred Meyer Stores, Inc.

The threat of a work stoppage can exert pressure on any collective bargaining process. If this strike authorization vote succeeds, the union will bring more heft to the next negotiating session Aug. 29.

The union has also used the backdrop of negotiations to highlight what it says is a gender-based pay gap it discovered in employment data from Fred Meyer.

A new study, commissioned by the union and performed by Olympic Analytics, supports that claim. An analyst found that, as of last summer, the typical woman working under Fred Meyer’s grocery contract in the Portland area was paid $3.70 less per hour than the typical man.

Evan Woods, the study’s author, said the gap was driven by the kinds of jobs many women are hired for, and then compounded by those jobs’ lower pay.

For example, under the grocery contract, jobs in the grocery, produce, cold wall and beer, wine and liquor departments are paid according to one wage scale, called “Schedule A.” Workers in the bakery, deli and cheese departments are paid according to a lower wage scale, called “Schedule B.”

“What you see is that the Schedule B departments, which are lower paid, are majority female – sometimes large majorities,” Woods said. “And the Schedule A departments like grocery and produce are majority male. And they’re paid more.”

Oregon’s increasing minimum wage would not erase structural pay differences for most workers in the study.

Gendered grocery jobs are nothing new. The study notes that in 1937, a collective bargaining agreement involving Fred Meyer and other Portland grocers established a “Bakery and Delicatessen Girls” wage scale, that paid up to 27% less than typical clerks received.

Woods does not argue that the wage gap among Portland-area Fred Meyer workers today is caused by explicit gender discrimination. He noted that, within departments, men and women are paid roughly the same. The reasons they seek or are offered different kinds of jobs, he said, merits more research.

Speaking generally about UFCW Local 555’s claims of pay inequity, Jeffery Temple of Fred Meyer said they were “an unfortunate misrepresentation.”

“Every associate in the same job type, whether a woman or a man, is paid equally based on their negotiated wage progressions,” he said. “And these are wage progressions that were negotiated for them by the union.”

Temple did not comment on whether larger hiring patterns at Fred Meyer might contribute to a gender-based pay gap. But he said the company does not funnel applicants into job types based on gender.

“We want to see women apply for all jobs,” he said. “So for example, Schedule A has a job that is working overnight freight crew, throwing freight. And so, if we can get women to apply for that, we would love for them to do that.”

Temple said Fred Meyer just started a program in which job applicants are taken out on the store floor during the interview process, so they can determine what job works best for them. He said the move was not a reaction to union criticism, but just the right thing to do.

The program was announced in July.