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Union to seek strike vote from Albertsons workers

The UFCW says it needs leverage to reach a deal. A community panel criticizes the grocers.

March 21, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Just a day after agreeing to extend contract talks for three weeks, the union that represents 65,000 Southern California grocery workers targeted Albertsons for a strike vote Sunday.

Union officials say that despite the extension, negotiations are moving at a "glacial pace" and they need leverage to reach an agreement with Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs, the region's largest supermarket chains.

"Our Albertsons members are strong and committed and this will give us the traction we need to finally get these talks moving," said Greg Conger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 324 in Buena Park.

The Albertsons workers will be asked to vote on whether to authorize a strike at some future date. Albertsons has 22,000 UFCW workers at 249 stores in the region.

The union may ask for similar votes against Ralphs and Vons at a later date.

Last year, union officials said Albertsons was the most likely first target of any separate action because the level of debt at Supervalu Inc., its corporate parent, made it less able to withstand a strike.

Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu borrowed $6.1 billion last year to purchase Albertsons and its non-union sibling, Bristol Farms.

"Nobody wins in a strike. Not the companies, not our employees and not our customers," Albertsons said in a statement. "We believe it is irresponsible to frighten our employees and alarm our customers with a strike vote when we should be continuing to work together at the bargaining table."

But such a vote is the first indication that the current round of talks could degenerate into the type of 4 1/2-month strike and lockout that created grocery-shopping chaos in late 2003.

The UFCW announced its planned strike vote on the same day when a panel of clergy and civic leaders lambasted the grocery companies for offering low wages and poor health benefits.

The labor-backed group, which calls itself the Blue Ribbon Commission on L.A.'s Grocery Industry and Community Health, also said the chains had done little to improve grocery shopping in poor neighborhoods, despite pledges to build stores in low-income communities after the 1992 riots.

"What we found is shocking, both in terms of the crisis in healthcare and the state of the stores in underserved areas," wrote Bishop Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Church of Los Angeles and Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, in a report issued by the group.

The panel is an arm of the Los Angeles Grocery Worker and Community Health Coalition, a union-oriented advocacy group that is critical of the major supermarket chains.

The report came in for immediate criticism from business-oriented groups.

"People have to realize this is a low-margin business and if these companies don't deliver profits they will get hammered by Wall Street," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

The commission wants the Los Angeles City Council to study the effect of the grocery contract and store locations on the city's economy and the health of its residents.

The report echoed many of the criticisms of the current grocery workers' contract made by UFCW officials. After the strike and lockout that ended in early 2004, the chains and the union agreed to a contract that largely kept the wages and health benefits of veteran employees untouched while slashing what would be offered to new hires.

About half of the workers at the three chains are now classified as second tier, which has starting pay near the minimum wage and 12- to 18-month waiting periods before qualifying for health insurance.

But the panel also struck a wider community tone, noting that the lack of major supermarkets with large produce and other fresh food sections in low-income neighborhoods hinders the health and nutrition of the region's poor.

"Many parts of our city do not have adequate access to grocery stores that provide healthy food at affordable prices," the report said.

In a joint statement, the three chains said they faced "intense competition and rising healthcare expenses.

"We need to manage those costs so that we can continue to grow and provide quality union jobs throughout all neighborhoods," they said.

Previously, they have defended the terms of the current contract, noting that the two-tier structure is not unique to the Southland grocery industry.

"Multi-tier contracts are an effective, union-approved method used across the nation for protecting benefits for veteran workers, while managing rising healthcare costs," Ralphs President David Hirz said.

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