The union representing 65,000 Southern California grocery workers turned up the heat Thursday on three major supermarket chains.
United Food and Commercial Workers leaders will ask their members Sunday to reject what they said was a flawed and incomplete contract proposal and to authorize a strike against Ralphs and Vons. If the workers agree, they would join Albertsons workers who voted in March to authorize a strike.
That was just the kind of news that shoppers throughout Southern California didn't want to hear. Many are hoping that the union and the supermarkets that employ them will avoid a repeat of the bitter 141-day strike and lockout of 2003 and 2004 that cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion, left many workers in a deep financial hole and disrupted customers' routines.
"I didn't appreciate the inconvenience last time around. Why can't they find some common ground?" said Cassandra McKie, a 24-year-old video game programmer who was loading groceries into her car at a Ralphs on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles. "They are just adding stress to the rest of our lives."
McKie said she probably would avoid a picket line unless there was an item she really needed.
Aggravated by the pace of negotiations that have dragged since the March 5 contract expiration, the union has been ratcheting up the pressure on the supermarkets. The latest tactic was to demand that the chains present a formal contract proposal by noon Thursday.
It didn't happen.
"We do not have a compromise offer that we can take to workers for a vote, but we are taking what we have to the members," said Michael Shimpock of SG&A Campaigns, a Pasadena media and political consulting firm representing the union.
The three supermarket chains blamed the union for increasing tensions by setting an arbitrary deadline on discussions. The grocery companies urged Ralphs and Vons employees to send a message to their union.
"If the unions persist with this meaningless vote before a last, best and final offer has been made, we believe our employees should vote against granting their union leaders the authority to call a strike," the employers said in a statement.
At a telephone news conference announcing Sunday's vote, three longtime supermarket workers voiced their support.
Mario Frias, 38, a 19-year employee at a Ralphs in Brea, said he didn't want to face a strike or a lockout, but he said he had done his best to prepare for one if it became necessary.
"At the beginning of this year, I started putting money aside. Like a lot of employees, I have not fully recovered from the last time around, but I have put some away," Frias said. The supermarkets "are hoping that they can give us a bad deal, and there is a sense of anger that they have strung us along."
The union also is counting on so-called second-tier workers like Suzanne Demers, a supervisor at a Vons store in Redondo Beach who became an employee in 2004. The contract that ended the last labor dispute set up a two-tier system that granted new workers lower wages and benefits than those of veteran employees. There are 33,000 of these second-tier workers, accounting for more than half of the union's membership.
So far, the union has Demers' backing.
"After turning in great service to both my customers and the company, I have received four promotions, but the only recognition I have received to date is the title on my badge -- supervisor -- and not a respectable pay increase. All we are asking for is the respect we deserve and a fair contract for a job well done," Demers said.
Some progress has been made in the contract negotiations.
This month, the union and the supermarkets agreed to cut the waiting time for new workers to get health insurance to six months. Right now, the wait is one year to 18 months, depending on the job. Children of workers also would become eligible for coverage after six months, instead of 30 months in the current contract. The new plan also would fully cover preventive care.
In addition, the two sides have agreed that workers deserve hourly raises. Employees have received some bonuses but no raises since 2002.
Important differences remain. Still to be determined is how much the health plan would cost and how it would be funded. Neither side has talked seriously about the size of wage increases.
The supermarkets say they have proposed eliminating much of the two-tier wage system. They would bump workers to first-tier salaries after about nine years of service, based on a 28-to-30-hour workweek. The union said the amount of time it would take to reach the highest pay grade amounted to the creation of a third tier of employees.