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California grocery workers authorize strike option

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Reuters

Grocery workers in Southern California voted overwhelmingly to give their union the power to call a strike if contract talks with three major supermarket chains fail, a union spokesman said on Monday.

“Preliminary results show us that we are well in excess of the two-thirds vote needed to authorize a strike,” spokesman Mike Shimpock said on a conference call.

He added that more than 50 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls — a figure Shimpock characterized as well above the national average for this type of voting.

“It was overwhelming. I think this (vote) expresses our members’ frustrations with management’s unwillingness to negotiate and sends a clear message that our members — and their employees — want them to get serious at the bargaining table,” Shimpock told Reuters.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents about 65,000 grocery workers in Southern California at Safeway Inc.’s (SWY.N: Quote, Profile, Research) Vons and Pavilions units, Kroger Co.’s (KR.N: Quote, Profile, Research) Ralphs chain and Supervalu Inc.’s (SVU.N: Quote, Profile, Research) Albertsons stores.

Workers at Albertsons had already voted in March to authorize a strike, but voted on Sunday on whether or not to accept the latest contract proposal from the supermarkets.

Hanging over negotiations is the memory the biggest strike in U.S. grocery history — a five-month work stoppage that cost the southern California’s supermarket chains more than $1 billion in lost sales.

Though the vote does not necessarily mean a strike will happen, it does mean the union will have more clout at the bargaining table, if negotiations resume.

“The vote signals to the grocery companies how serious the workers are in this negotiation,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Prior to a work stoppage, the union is required to provide 72 hours notice, making Friday the earliest the union could strike, though Shimpock said on Monday there are no plans yet to cancel the contract.

“We are keeping our options open,” said Shimpock.

‘PREPARED FOR ANYTHING’

Brad Chase, a spokesman for the supermarkets, said they were disappointed by the results of the vote, but hopeful that negotiations would resume “within the next week or so.”

“As a business, we have a responsibility to our shareholders, our employees and our customers to be prepared for every contingency,” Chase told Reuters.

Both sides said no meetings are scheduled.

The union set the vote after contract talks broke down last Thursday. The original contract was set to expire in March, but has been extended several times. The union had asked the supermarkets to supply a final offer by Thursday.

“We just want what’s fair,” said Erica Bentzen, a union member and a 22-year employee of Ralphs in Calabasas, outside Los Angeles. “What

they’ve (the supermarkets) offered is not good enough.”

A major sticking point in negotiations is health coverage. Less than half of grocery workers in Southern California have health coverage, a significant decline from the 94 percent that had coverage before the 2003-04 work stoppage, Jacobs said.

“The workers will hold out very hard for a contract that goes a long way toward restoring what was lost,” Jacobs said, though he added that no one wants a strike.

“I think there’s strong reason for the grocery companies — and for everyone — to come to a settlement,” Jacobs added. “But reason does not always prevail.”

Rod Diamond, secretary-treasurer of the UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, recalled the experience of 2003-04.

“Do we want to go out there and have a 141-day strike?” Diamond asked. “Absolutely not. But I think we have to be prepared for anything.” (Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago)