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Union gets OK to strike

Grocery workers vote overwhelmingly to allow a job action if contract talks with supermarkets fail.

June 25, 2007|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Southern California grocery workers voted Sunday to give their union the right to strike if negotiations for a new contract fail. Union officials said the measure passed by an overwhelming 95%.

Contract talks between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons over a new agreement for 65,000 workers from Bakersfield to the Mexican border broke off late last week. Sunday's strike authorization vote was set by the union after the grocery chains failed to meet a Thursday deadline for a formal offer.

The voting, at 25 locations, continued as late as 9 p.m. with a high turnout, the union said, and a formal announcement of the results was scheduled for this morning.

For the strike authorization measure to pass, at least two-thirds of participating voters had to support it. The approval does not mean there will be a strike, but it gives union leaders added clout in negotiations.

Turnout at one location, Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, was heavy by 8:30 a.m., with the school's parking lot filled to overflowing and voters crowded into a stuffy auditorium for a pre-vote briefing by union leaders.

Of those who were polled shortly after their vote, only one said that he was financially prepared for a strike, but everyone interviewed was prepared to support a walkout if union leaders found it necessary.

"What I say at this point is that it is about principle," said Suzanne Demers, 44, a supervisor at Vons store 1623 in Redondo Beach, as she waited for her turn to vote.

"I am struggling already, but what have I got to lose? Customers say to me, 'Please don't go on strike.' But now that I see how I have allowed Vons to deplete me, I know this has to stop. I want to take a stand."

Demers, who makes $10.50 an hour, and her husband, Jim, have struggled to make ends meet. Jim runs a small trucking company by day and then works as late as 2 a.m. every night on a second job as a limousine driver. They share a one-bedroom Hawthorne apartment with their 18-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

"A strike is the last thing we want. But the union started negotiating two months before the contract ended, and the employers keep dragging it out," Demers said. "We have two choices: Keep working under these horrible conditions, or we have to put our foot down."

One worker said he knew that this contract negotiation would be tough, so he put his family on a rigorous savings program for the last three years. Now, 40-year-old Francisco Alanis, a member of the night crew at a Manhattan Beach Vons, said he was ready for a strike or lockout.

"I'm not surprised. The stores don't care about us," Alanis said after voting for a strike authorization.

Albertsons workers, who voted in March to give their union leaders strike authorization, got a ballot asking for a simple yes or no on a partial contract proposal. But Vons and Ralphs workers got ballots that left them little wiggle room. They could not reject the offer and at the same time deny the right to strike; a no vote committed the workers to both rejecting the offer and authorizing a strike.

That forced some workers to vote yes simply because they thought authorizing a strike was premature. One was Kathleen Manley, a 59-year-old bookkeeper at a Ralphs store in Newbury Park, who said she had been unable to get straight answers from either side.

"I hear a lot of used-car-salesman language on both sides. I want them to go back to the table and be serious. They are playing with my life and I'm not real happy about that," Manley said.

The Ralphs chain said the vote was misleading to workers.

"If union leaders were honest with our employees, they'd tell them we're making progress on the core issues of wages, pensions and healthcare eligibility and, by mutual agreement, are scheduled to continue those discussions next week," said Michael Bustamante, a consultant for Ralphs.

Ralphs Grocery Co. is a unit of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. Vons Cos. is owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif. Albertsons is owned by Supervalu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

The chains and the union have apparently agreed to slash the time new employees must wait before getting healthcare benefits. But in urging workers to vote no, the union said the chains' healthcare proposals would run out of money in three years.

Both sides remain far apart on several issues, including how to fund the health plan. Raises are likely, but there has been little talk on the size of the increases. Another unresolved issue is the matter of workers who were hired after the 2004 accord and received lower wages and benefits than veteran employees.

The chains have contended that Sunday's vote was premature and should not occur until a full offer was on the table.

The workers' contract has been extended twice since its March 5 expiration. Both sides said Sunday that they were still hoping to avoid a repeat of the bitter 141-day strike and lockout of 2003-04 that decimated the savings of grocery workers and cost the employers an estimated $1.5 billion as well as the loyalty of some shoppers.

Many customers were dreading another impasse, but some said Sunday that they were prepared to avoid the picket lines if a strike or lockout occurred.

"Crossing a picket line would give the employers more power to squeeze the wages and benefits of these workers," said Michael Eastman of Santa Monica, owner of two Internet businesses that offer online music subscriptions and faith-based lifestyle messages. "I'm not going to help them do that."

Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.

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