Business & Economy

Health care major issue as grocery workers begin strike vote

Grocery store worker casts his ballot.
Grocery store worker casts his ballot.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Thousands of union workers at Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons stores have begun two days of voting to authorize a strike against the grocery chains. It comes after six months of stalled contract talks.

Workers are casting ballots at locations throughout Southern California, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union hall in Harbor City. Hundreds of supermarket employees lined up to vote as the doors opened at 7 a.m.

A steady stream of workers continued throughout the morning. Union representatives spoke to them in small groups to explain the details of the contract offer from the three supermarket chains.

UFCW members are voting on two questions: whether to accept or reject the contract offer, and whether to give union leaders the authority to call a strike if contract talks fail. They've been working without a contract for six months.

"This vote is about sending a message to corporations for us and for everybody,'' union spokesman Mike Shimpock told City News Service. "If you work hard, you should be able to support your family.''

Health care costs have been the sticking point in negotiations. The new offer would charge workers about $36 a month for single or $92 a month for family coverage.

"The current proposal from our employer doesn’t want to contribute enough funds to keep our health care alive," said 55-year-old Ed Mora, who works as a clerk at an Albertsons in Carson. "This is gonna fast track us into county services.  All we want is health care, not welfare."

The stores say it's a fair deal while union workers say it could eat up as much as half of their take-home pay.

Shimpock noted that the health care dispute is not based on the amount of premiums paid by the employees, but on the amount of money paid by the grocery chains into a health care trust fund - payments Shimpock said have actually decreased over the past decade.

UFCW members and the same three grocery chains ended up in a labor dispute nearly eight years ago that kept picket lines outside Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons stores for 20 weeks.

KPCC Wire Services contributed to this story.