Labor leaders are reflected in a photograph of Cesar Chavez during the union's… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Holding signs that said, "L.A. isn't Wisconsin," representatives of 62,000 unionized grocery store workers said that they could be close to going out on strike against Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons supermarkets.
Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, said at a news conference that the two sides were primarily battling over health coverage.
"We're so far apart, if something doesn't happen soon, we will have a strike," Icaza said.
The supermarket companies would not comment on what kind of changes they are seeking with regard to employee healthcare. But the union said the chains want employees to pay more for premiums, deductibles and co-pays. The new payments could be as high as 50% of some workers' take-home pay, the union said.
The union's contract expired in March, and members have authorized a strike. Negotiations are being conducted under the supervision of a federal mediator.
The three grocery chains are owned by larger corporations. Ralphs is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati; Vons and Pavilions by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons by SuperValu Inc., of Eden Prairie, Minn.
"We are still actively negotiating, and any talk of a strike is unnecessary," the three chains said in a joint statement. "The only place where we can reach an agreement is at the bargaining table, and we believe our focus should be there, reaching a fair and reasonable contract."
Also present at the news conference, which took place at the headquarters of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, were unions representing truck drivers, firefighters, teachers, actors and others who pledged their support if a strike occurred.
The labor federation said that it had set aside $100,000 to help strikers pay for food during a work stoppage, and that members of other unions would step in to walk picket lines along with grocery workers if needed.
"We're going to open our hearts, our union halls and our pockets to these workers," said Peter Marley, international representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents technicians, artisans and craftspeople in the entertainment industry.
The grocery unions last went out on strike in 2003 in a roughly five-month action that permanently disrupted consumer patterns in Southern California as customers shifted to stores that were not affected by the work stoppage.
The state's struggling economy — including its unemployment rate, which in April was 11.9% — could undercut a strike effort. Finding people willing to cross a picket line to have a paycheck, no matter how temporary, may be easier than it was during 2003-04, grocery industry analysts said.
Still, a protracted battle could weaken the three unionized chains, which are losing market share as nonunion retailers gain a stronger hold of the region.