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Grocery workers seek offer by June 21

June 09, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Southern California's grocery workers union demanded Friday that the big supermarket chains present a comprehensive proposal by noon June 21 for the 65,000 workers who are overdue for a new contract.

Union officials said they set the deadline out of concern that talks "could drag on indefinitely." The employees' contract was set to expire March 5 but has been extended twice as the two sides negotiate raises and healthcare benefits.

"This is not a call to battle," said Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 770. "We are just trying to bring this to completion."

Icaza, who heads the UFCW's largest local in Southern California, said there "has been some progress.... I am optimistic that we can reach a fair agreement, but it isn't over until it's over."

A spokeswoman for Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons -- the three big chains involved in the talks -- said the companies "would be delighted if we can reach an agreement by June 21."

"Complex and important" negotiations have taken place this week and talks are scheduled almost daily for the next two weeks, said Adena Tessler of the Rogers Group, a public relations firm that speaks for the chains. She added that "significant progress" had been made in recent weeks. Both sides, however, declined to discuss the substance of the negotiations because of a news blackout requested by a federal mediator.

If the UFCW is unable to wrest an offer that includes wages and health benefits by June 21, Icaza said it would ask workers to vote on what had been discussed.

The union said it planned to hold member meetings starting June 24 to either vote on a completed contract proposal or authorize strikes against Ralphs and Vons.

Earlier this year, the UFCW won permission from workers to call a strike against Albertsons. The grocery stores responded by declaring that if Albertsons was struck, Ralphs and Vons would lock workers out.

In 2003, a breakdown in contract negotiations resulted in an acrimonious, 141-day strike and lockout that drained workers' savings and cost employers $1.5 billion before it ended with the contract agreement that is still in force.

This time, talks have dragged on more than three months beyond the scheduled expiration date with the sides trading threats. But neither side has seemed eager to launch a work stoppage.

According to people familiar with the talks, negotiators have agreed that the workers, who have not had an hourly wage increase since 2002, should get a raise. But they had not begun to discuss numbers as of last week.

The two sides have agreed on a plan to improve health insurance for the 33,000 "second-tier" workers who were hired after the 2004 accord and receive lower wages and benefits than veteran employees.

The eventual contract will reduce the time it takes new employees to qualify for insurance to six months. Under the existing pact, new workers must wait one year or 18 months, depending on the job. Children of employees also would be covered in six months under the new accord instead of 30 months, and the waiting period for spouses would fall to two years from 30 months.

But the two sides have battled over the size of the reserve the health plan needs in case expenses are higher than forecast or a greater number of workers than expected sign up for the insurance, according to people with knowledge of the talks.

The union contends that the employers are not willing to put in enough money to pay for the improved benefits. The companies say their proposed contributions are sufficient.

The UFCW and the employers also have agreed to help fund healthcare benefits with a portion of $500 million in reserves in a jointly operated healthcare trust fund. The union is willing to tap almost half the reserve, but the employers want to go as high as $350 million to subsidize health benefits.

Union officials say that taking any more than $240 million out of the reserves would threaten the health plan's solvency.

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