In a weekend vote, 90 percent of the United Food and Commercial Workers union rejected a health care benefits proposal from Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons, automatically authorizing union officials to call a strike with 72 hours notice.
That notice, however, has yet to be given, and union officials said they are temporarily suspending a strike action, hoping to see some concessions on the part of the big grocery chains.
The United Commercial Food Workers union is scheduled to resume negotiations with the grocery chains on the Aug. 29 in what is thought to be a last-ditch attempt at averting a walkout.
The 62,000-member union said the grocery chains’ offer would only significantly increase out-of-pocket costs for struggling employees’ families and bankrupt their health care benefits by year’s end.
Employees of Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons have worked without a contract for nearly six months. That previous contract expired in March, and the union took an initial vote to authorize a strike in April.
The groups reached a similar impasse eight years ago, and a subsequent strike lasted 164 days. Both sides hope to avoid a repeat of that lockout, which cost grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.
Ralphs Grocery Co. spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said her chain is committed to staying at the table to negotiate, and the grocers’ proposal was affordable and good for employees and their families. “Our employees want to keep working, and our stores are ready to serve customers,” Doyel said.
Both sides announced last month that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers’ contributions to pension benefits, but payments to the union health care trust fund have been a major sticking point.
Ralphs currently pays more than 90 percent of employee health coverage costs, Doyel said. Workers hired before 2004 pay nothing for health insurance, while those hired later pay either $7 a week for single coverage or $15 a week for family coverage. The companies’ proposal would raise that to $9 a week for singles and $23 a week for families. That is much lower than the average cost of health care insurance in California, she said.
Rick Icaza, United Commercial Food Workers union president, emphasized the union is prepared to strike, but is keeping its options open. “We’re not going to strike until we find out whether or not we’re going to have progress,” he said on LA’s Patt Morrison show on NPR Monday. Icaza added. Despite upcoming negotiations, Icaza added the UCFW would not reconsider the option to strike. “We will not take any more strike votes, and in the event that there is no progress, we will then give the 72-hour notice.”
“The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process,” Vons said via a press statement. “We remain hopeful that we can peacefully reach a settlement that works for both sides. We would urge the union leadership to do the same.”
Meanwhile labor and employments experts agree that a strike is a real possibility, though there is disagreement over the size of a strike. Some suggest the grocery chains are confident in their hand, given the high level of unemployment and how easy it could be to hire replacements. While nationally, the unemployment rate is floating between 9.1% and 9.2%, California is at 11.9%, a figure that some labor analysts think works against the union, which might have had a stronger public relations standing in better employment conditions.
That said, others think the union could use that figure to bolster its threat of a walkout, playing on grocers’ sympathies to long-term employees. The union, which has sold the health plan grievances to its membership, also might have no choice but to avoid localized strikes in favor a full walkout, if it’s to save face after railing so vociferously against the chains’ proposals.
Meanwhile, Vons in Mammoth, which employs more than 100 workers, has already posted signs advertising employment, should the strike go forward. The store is following suit with outlets from all three major chains that have posted similar notices. –Additional source: NPR/SoCal Public Radio