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Grocery Walkout Supported by Unions

October 10, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

A potential strike by union supermarket workers won the backing of organized labor throughout Southern California on Thursday, in a show of force that some hoped would push the three major grocery chains to reconsider demands for deep cuts in health and pension benefits.

Union and market negotiators were set to meet with a federal mediator this afternoon, but there was little sign that either side was willing to give ground. Union officials said they would not negotiate the markets' latest proposal, which one leader described as "ridiculous and insulting."

For their part, the chains said their offer was fair and needed to be discussed fully.

"We have a proposal that's on the table, and we are waiting to have a meaningful dialogue about it," said Terry O'Neil, spokesman for Ralphs Grocery Co., which is owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. He added, however, "I cannot speculate on what we will do on Friday."

Talks between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and representatives of Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons stores broke off Sunday at midnight, when the previous contract expired. Vons and Pavilions are owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., and Albertson's Inc. is based in Boise, Idaho.

The contract covers about 70,000 members of the UFCW in seven locals, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. During the last two days, those members have gathered at emotionally charged meetings to cast ballots on the markets' proposal and on their willingness to strike.

The full results of those votes were to be released this morning, when union officials also are expected to announce when a strike could start. Local 770 in Los Angeles, the largest of the seven, tallied the results Wednesday night: More than 11,000 members voted to reject the contract offer and authorize a strike, while fewer than 200 voted to accept the deal.

The strike sanction, approved by central labor councils in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, was announced after council leaders met with UFCW officials at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. The sanction tells truck drivers, janitors, deli workers, refrigeration engineers and other union members who normally work in the stores not to cross UFCW picket lines, which could go up as soon as Saturday.

The support also brings the weight and experience of some of the area's toughest unions to a fight waged by grocery workers who haven't walked off the job in 25 years.

"We're going to try to marry the tactics of some of the more militant unions with the considerable resources of the UFCW," said Miguel Contreras, the top executive with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

With 1.4 million members, the UFCW is one of the nation's largest private-sector unions. During the last year, it has amassed a strike fund of more than $1 million to cover anticipated supermarket labor disputes throughout the country.

Contreras also pledged federation resources, including staff members, and said he would help augment picket lines with political and community allies and members of other unions, including entertainment celebrities.

"We need to make sure the workers here are victorious," he said. "This is all about trying to protect middle-class jobs."

Together, the labor councils represent an estimated 1.2 million union workers in Southern California, Contreras said.

According to UFCW officials, the three grocery chains have sought steep cuts in benefits and a far lower wage package for new hires. The markets have declined to release details of their proposal but said that it was generous in light of growing competitive pressures from warehouse stores and nonunion markets.

Employees say the proposed cuts are too drastic. Many veteran workers said they built their careers around the markets because of the promise of generous health and pension benefits. Clerks and stockers earn as much as $17.90 an hour with fully paid family medical insurance. Many noted they worked only part time and were lucky to put in as many as 30 hours a week.

"I can barely survive now," said Peter Morgan, who celebrated his 10th anniversary with Vons at a strike rally Thursday outside the Federation of Labor near downtown Los Angeles. Morgan, who manages a liquor department at a West Los Angeles store, said he worked 24 hours a week and earned about $12 an hour. "I have to borrow money from my friends sometimes just to make the rent," he said. "If they go through with this, I don't know what I'll do."

According to the union, proposed cuts in benefits could force workers to pay as much as 50% of the cost of medical visits, prescription drugs and hospital stays. The contract offer also would freeze wages for the first two years of the agreement, with a raise of as much as 30 cents an hour for the third year, and cut premium pay for nights, Sundays and holidays.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

On February 12, 2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had stated repeatedly that 70,000 workers were involved in the supermarket labor dispute in Central and Southern California, said that the number of people on strike or locked out was actually 59,000. A union spokeswoman, Barbara Maynard, said that 70,000 UFCW members were, in fact, covered by the labor contract with supermarkets that expired last year. But 11,000 of them worked for Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., Arden Group Inc.'s Gelson's and other regional grocery companies and were still on the job. (See: "UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2004, Business C-11)

--- END NOTE ---

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