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.