It’s been more than a week since the supermarket chains Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UCFW) representing grocery workers went back to the table to work on a contract agreement in an effort to avoid an employee strike. On Tuesday, union officials indicated that the UCFW’s membership could be the closest to a strike than they have been at anytime prior.
“We are certainly giving a very careful consideration to giving a 72 hour notice,” said Mickey Kasparian, UCFW Local 135 President, told CBS News. If a 72-hour notice were to be given this week, grocery workers could be on the picket lines as early as this weekend.
“They’re saying we should be at the table negotiating, we shouldn’t be talking about a strike,” Kasparian said. “But negotiation is about engagement and they are not engaging right now.”
The negotiations are still deadlocked when it comes to workers’ health benefits.
In an Aug. 20-21 vote, 90 percent of the UCFW 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 had suspended strike actions, hoping to see some concessions on the part of the big grocery chains.
The UCFW resumed negotiations with the grocery chains on Aug. 29 in what was perceived 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. The chains uniformly reject those claims.
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.
One of the few benefits of a walkout could be, oddly enough, jobs. If the call is given and a strike begins, those who are unemployed could find themselves in temporary positions within the three major grocery stores, Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs.
Union officials, however, said they believed the two sides will eventually reach an agreement. “In 2003 there was a long strike, and at the end of the day there’s always a deal … there’s always a settlement,” Kasparian said. Union officials were also quick to add they would prefer to avoid a strike entirely.
Meanwhile, all three of the grocery chains have lately been reluctant to comment to the media, other than reiterating their previous position that the proposals on the table are indeed, fair. –Additional sources: KFMB CBS 8, San Diego