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Southland grocery workers authorize strike

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers approve a walkout if the union and supermarkets including Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons can't agree on a contract.

August 22, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • A grocery store worker casts her vote on the strike authorization. Healthcare benefits, potential staff cuts and reduced wages are major areas of contention, officials on both sides of the labor talks say.
A grocery store worker casts her vote on the strike authorization. Healthcare… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Members of a union that represents 62,000 grocery workers at Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons supermarkets in Southern California voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if an agreement on a new contract can't be reached.

The strike authorization won the backing of more than 90% of the United Food and Commercial Workers members who voted, easily more than the two-thirds majority required, union officials said Sunday.

The union said it would report the vote results Monday to a federal mediator trying to resolve the contract dispute.

Both sides agree that the results — the second time UFCW members have voted in favor of a strike this year — increases the chance that grocery workers will walk off the job if the tenor of the labor talks doesn't soon improve.

The labor contract that was reached in 2007 expired March 6 and is being extended day to day. It covers checkers, baggers, meat cutters and other grocery workers across the region, including those employed by Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati; Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons, which is owned by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Since the contract expired, union and management negotiators have met more than 53 times. Healthcare benefits, potential staff cuts and reduced wages are major areas of contention, say officials on both sides of the labor talks. Among other things, UFCW officials say the three grocery chains want employees to pay more for insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays.

The drawn-out negotiations has area grocery workers nervously recalling the bitter debate over wages and healthcare benefits that led them to the picket lines seven years ago. In fall 2003, the labor dispute led to a contentious 141-day strike and worker lockout that affected hundreds of California grocery stores.

The work stoppage ultimately hurt the retailers and the labor unions. Profits and the stock prices of all three retailers subsequently dropped. It also resulted in some consumers in Southern California shifting their shopping patterns, grocery analysts have said. Smaller chains and non-union shops — including Trader Joe's and Gelson's — enjoyed a boost in business.

"We don't want to strike," said Rick Icaza, president of the union's Local 770, the biggest of seven locals representing workers who would be covered by a new contract. "We want to get back to work taking care of customers and our families. But the corporate owners of the supermarkets refuse to negotiate fairly to reach a compromise."

In a statement issued Sunday, Ralphs spokeswoman Kendra M. Doyel called the strike authorization a commonly used negotiating tactic and said it did not necessarily mean a strike would be called.

"Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons remain committed to reaching a contract that is good for our employees and keeps these union jobs sustainable for the future." Doyel said.

Vons spokesman Daymond Rice agreed, saying the negotiations "have not fully run their course. The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process. We remain hopeful that we can peacefully reach a settlement that works for both sides."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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