Business & Economy

Grocery workers head to the bargaining table again, this time with strike authorized

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

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More than 90 percent of the 62,000 United Food and Commercial Workers union members in Southern California voted to approve a possible strike over the weekend. The voters rejected a health care benefits proposal from supermarket chains, pushing them back to the bargaining table.

Workers said they rejected the deal because they'd have to contribute too much to their health care plans under the proposal. But Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons officials say it’s a fair deal.

The vote automatically authorized union officials to call a strike with 72 hours notice. Union employees of the three stores have worked without a contract for nearly six months.

Rick Icaz, union president, says he's prepared to strike, but it's not the union's preferred move.

"Right now technically we could not strike, and we're not going to strike until we find out wether or not we're going to have progress," he said on the Patt Morrison show Monday.

Icaza says the union is scheduled to resume negotiations with the grocery chains on the Aug. 29. Despite upcoming negotiations the union leader says they will not reconsider the option to strike. "We will not take any more strike votes, and in the event that there is no progress, we will then give the 72-hour notice."

Speaking with KPCC's Shereen Marisol Meraji, Icaza said "the offer from the employers is not complete or fair. The supermarket corporations' health care offer would significantly increase out of pocket costs for struggling families and bankrupt our health care benefits before the end of next year."

Jackie Green, a Ralph's employee, echoed that sentiment. She says she's ready to strike. "I show up for work, I do more than my share. So if we do strike, I want to say please do not shop in these stores, that's what's gonna help us."

Eight years ago, the workers and companies reached a similar impasse and a strike lasted for four months. Representatives of both sides still say they don’t want a similar result this time. That lockout cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.

"The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process," a Vons release said. "We remain hopeful that we can peacefully reach a settlement that works for both sides. We would urge the union leadership to do the same."

Chris Tilley is the director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA and a professor in the Urban Planning Department, he says a strike is a real possibility. "I do think that there's some likelihood of a strike. I think the owners see that they have somewhat of an upper hand, given the high level of unemployment it will be easy to get replacements, so they're bargaining very hard, they're pushing very hard and the union is determined to hold the line."

Tilley says grocers don't want to strike but their business strategy and cost models are focused on driving down costs. "They're looking over their shoulders at Walmart at the 99 cent stores, it's an overall dynamic in the industry — that it's much more cost driven, much less quality driven, and they're responding to that."

To prepare for a possible strike, Albertsons has started to advertise for temporary replacement workers to make sure its stores can stay open, chain spokesman Fred Muir said Sunday.

"Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations and does not necessarily mean a strike will be called. Getting sidetracked by these tactics — especially when it is clear there is no complete contract offer on the table and because productive negotiations continue — will only delay our ability to reach a fair agreement for our associates," Muir said. "The real work toward getting a fair contract will happen at the negotiating table and we hope that's where the union leadership will focus its attention when we return to bargaining."

Ralphs Grocery Co. spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said her chain is committed to staying at the table to negotiate, and the grocers' proposal was affordable and good for employees and their families.

"Our employees want to keep working, and our stores are ready to serve customers," Doyel said Sunday.

Both sides announced last month that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but payments to the union health care trust fund have been a major sticking point.

Ralphs currently pays more than 90 percent of employee health coverage costs, Doyel said. Workers hired before 2004 pay nothing for health insurance while those hired later pay either $7 a week for single coverage or $15 a week for family coverage.

The companies' proposal would raise that to $9 a week for singles and $23 a week for families. That is much lower than the average cost of health care insurance in California, she said.

But Shimpock said that the union is concerned about the long-term sustainability of the health care fund.

"With the amount they're offering now, the fund would go bankrupt by next September," he said. "We're worried about increased costs, of course. But it doesn't matter if premiums are $2 or $200 if the benefits are eventually eliminated."

Correction: The original copy said the vote could occur as soon as next week, when it should have said this week.