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Walkout Threatens at Markets

Sides agree to meet with a federal mediator, but workers vote to authorize a strike.

October 09, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Major grocery chains and union leaders agreed to meet with a federal mediator, but the threat of a weekend walkout remained strong as thousands of Southland workers voted Wednesday to authorize a strike.

By a vote of 98%, members of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Los Angeles gave their leaders permission to call a strike if mediation, scheduled to begin Friday, fails.

Similar votes are scheduled in other Southern and Central California counties today, with results from areas outside Los Angeles to be announced Friday morning.

Union leaders said that the latest offer from the major supermarket chains would force them to take big cuts in health and pension benefits, and that a job action could start as early as Saturday.

"Nobody gets anything unless you fight for it," Rod Diamond, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, told a cheering, foot-stomping crowd at the Los Angeles Sports Arena at one of three strike votes held throughout the day.

Many veteran market employees said they had stayed on the job because of the generous health and pension benefits and now felt betrayed.

"We understand things are tough and we need to make co-pays and accept wage freezes, but this is too extreme," said Richard Meichtry, a produce manager at a Ralphs store in Century City and a 26-year supermarket veteran. "There's no choice now but to strike. They're not giving us a choice."

Talks between the UFCW and representatives of Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons stores broke off Sunday at midnight, when the previous contract expired.

Citing competitive pressures from warehouse stores and nonunion markets, the employers have sought steep cuts in benefits and a far lower wage package for new hires.

"In light of the current competitive environment, our proposals are generous and will continue to provide wages and benefits for our existing associates that are among the best in our industry," Dave Simonson, president of the Southern California division of Albertson's Inc., said in a statement earlier this week.

The contract covers about 70,000 clerks, stockers, baggers and meat cutters at stores from San Diego to Mono County and east to the Arizona and Nevada borders.

Negotiators have agreed to meet with federal mediator Phyllis S. Cayse on Friday afternoon, but they held out little hope that she could bridge the gulf between them.

"It gives us a chance to sit down at the table with them," said Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon, who noted that the mediator had initiated the meeting. "I'm not sure what the results of that will be."

Added Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, "I'm not optimistic, but I don't want to be in a position of not trying."

Now that union members have voted to authorize a strike, it would be up to union negotiators to call one if mediation fails.

Both sides appeared to focus on strike preparations.

At the Sports Arena, team leaders for each store grabbed armfuls of picket signs and information packets. Supermarkets stepped up the training of replacement workers and made hotel arrangements for reinforcements from stores outside the area.

Details of the markets' latest proposal were outlined at the strike meetings, with each new clause eliciting boos and jeers.

Union analysts say the cuts in benefits could force workers to pay as much as 50% of the cost of medical visits, prescription drugs and hospital stays. The stores also want to freeze wages for the first two years of the contract, UFCW officials said, with a hike of as much as 30 cents an hour in the third year.

In addition, the stores are seeking to cut premium pay for nights, Sundays and holidays and want unlimited use of case-ready meat, the union said, threatening the jobs of meat cutters.

The supermarkets have declined to discuss specific proposals but have characterized their offer as fair, given the current market climate. Indeed, profits and same-store sales have been slipping for the giant chains during the last year. Stock analysts have pushed the companies to bring down labor costs.

Veteran clerks and stockers now earn as much as $17.90 an hour. Meat cutters, the highest-paid nonsalaried employees in the store, earn as much as $19.18 an hour, while baggers can earn $7.40 hourly. Employees noted, however, that about 70% work part time -- about 24 hours a week.

Currently all new stores opened by the chains must be union, but union leaders say the companies are asking for the ability to open nonunion markets. The loudest boos at the meetings greeted a proposal to allow stores to assign two-hour lunch breaks, allowing them to reduce staffing during slow periods but forcing employees to work longer shifts.

The supermarket proposals would fall hardest on new hires, whose top pay would be cut by $2.80 an hour, UFCW officials said. It would also take as long as eight years to reach that peak, whereas now it takes only two.

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