UNIONIZED GROCERY workers in Southern California brought more drama to their contract negotiations this week, voting overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if contract talks break down. The move reflected the Kabuki-theater quality of major contract negotiations, whose slow pace often prompts union members to pose belligerently simply to energize the proceedings. In this case, however, the vote reminded negotiators for Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons that these episodes don't always end well. It suggested that only four years after a wrenching 141-day strike and lockout, union members are willing to stage another walkout in pursuit of a better deal.
If they do, recent history tells us, both sides would be the losers. The last go-round cost the companies an estimated $1.5 billion and either drove workers out of the industry or drained their savings. Paradoxically, the United Food and Commercial Workers' strong support for authorizing a strike -- more than 95% of the members voted in favor, according to the union -- may help avert an impasse by giving the companies a better feel for the workers' sentiments.
At issue are contracts covering 65,000 workers in stores from Bakersfield to the state's southern border. The three chains' agreements with the seven UFCW locals expired March 5, leaving the companies running on the fumes of temporary extensions. Although negotiators have agreed on several important points, such as reducing the amount of time new workers must wait to receive health benefits, other disputes remain.
The companies' insistence on addressing one issue at a time has frustrated union negotiators, who are eager to undo the two-tiered wage system created after the last bitter fight. More than half of the union's members in Southern California are in the lower tier, in which health benefits are delayed and wages reduced. The companies say they're willing to shorten the time workers spend in the lower-paying tier, but they're obviously in less of a hurry to sign a deal to that effect. They've withheld putting a complete offer on the table, saying they need more time to work through the issues around healthcare, wages and pensions.
The latest vote was the second attempt by the union to add urgency to the talks. Albertsons' workers voted in late March to authorize a strike; by early June, negotiators for the two sides were trumpeting a tentative agreement on health benefits. Talks quickly stalled again, however, leading workers at Ralphs and Vons to vote Sunday to approve a strike. The two sides broke off negotiations last week but are expected to resume discussions this week. Here's hoping that the union's second warning shot will prompt both sides to stay at the table until the deals are done.