Members of an area grocery workers union voted overwhelmingly Friday and Saturday to authorize their negotiators to declare a strike if they cannot reach a new labor contract with supermarket chains Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions, and Albertsons. Over 90 percent of the workers who cast secret ballots over the weekend voted in favor of authorizing a possible strike, easily exceeding the necessary two-thirds majority.
The union members — who are organized by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 62,000 grocery workers between Santa Maria and Los Angeles County — also voted to reject the latest contract proposal offered by the supermarkets. Although UFCW spokesperson Mike Shimpock declined to provide the precise number of workers who cast ballots, voter turnout at the Ralphs on Hollister Avenue in Goleta — the only voting location in Santa Barbara County — was reportedly quite large.
If bargaining talks scheduled for next Monday are unsuccessful, union negotiators could declare a strike, which would go into effect after 72 hours. UFCW members “authorized a strike because they want a fair contract, not a walkout,” said Rick Icaza, who is president of the UFCW’s local division, the Grocery Workers Union Local 770. “The offer from the employers is not complete or fair.”
The UFCW vote comes eight months into a tense negotiation process to renew a 2007 labor contract that covered all grocery workers employed by Ralphs, which is owned by Cinncinati-based Kroger Co.; Vons and Pavilions, which are owned by Pleasanton, California-based Safeway Inc.; and Albertsons, which is owned by Minnesota-based SuperValue Inc. Although the contract was extended on a day-to-day basis after expiring on March 6 to allow negotiation to proceed without a strike, negotiators have made little progress due to a disagreement between the union and the supermarkets about the employee health care plan.
While the supermarkets proposed a plan that would modestly increase contributions to their employees’ health care trust fund, the UFCW has opposed the plan due to concerns that the proposed health care benefits would not remain intact in the long term. “The supermarket corporations’ health care offer would significantly increase out of pocket costs for struggling families and bankrupt our health care benefits before the end of next year,” Icaza said in a written statement. Shimpock echoed Icaza’s criticism, denouncing the supermarkets’ plan for putting “an expiration date of December 2012” on worker benefits. “We need to find a plan that keeps the plan solvent for the members,” he added. According to Shimpock, such a plan would double the amount of health care funding that the supermarkets are currently offering.
Although a strike seems increasingly likely to occur, both sides remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached without a work shutdown. “We don’t want a strike,” said Shimpock. “We’re just asking them to pay their fair share and bring up their contribution to market levels.”
For their part, the supermarkets say they are eager to keep their employees working. “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,” Kendra Doyel — vice president of marketing at Ralphs — said in a written statement. Doyel also downplayed the UFCW vote, saying that strike authorization is “a common tactic in negotiations” rather than a precursor to an actual strike.
Back in 2003, the local UFCW declared a strike on Vons due to another labor contract dispute over health care and pension cuts. Albertsons and Ralphs proceeded to lock out their Southern California employees, leading to a 20-week strike that cost the three supermarket chains an estimated $2 billion.