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Grocery workers vote on strike

Ventura County Star

Ventura County grocery workers expressed frustration and anger Sunday as they joined thousands across Southern California to vote on whether to authorize union leaders to call for a strike.

On-and-off contract negotiations have continued for more than six months between seven Southern California unions ? under United Food and Commercial Workers ? and their three employers: Kroger Co.’s Ralphs, Safeway Inc.’s Vons and Pavilions, and Supervalu Inc.’s Albertsons.

A decision to hold votes Sunday came after unions set a June 21 deadline to receive a contract proposal.

At least 1,000 people showed up at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center throughout the day, first hearing presentations and then voting on whether to reject or approve a proposal from employers, said Martel Fraser, secretary-treasurer for the local union 1036, which conducted the local voting.

At least 90 percent voted to reject the proposal, she said.

Union members voted on one ballot, union officials said.

In order to reject the proposal, more than a majority of members would have to approve the rejection. To authorize a strike, however, at least two-thirds would have to approve it.

Final numbers could not be provided until after voting finishes today, officials said.

Brad Chase, a spokesman for the three employers, said that the June 21 deadline was arbitrary and unreasonable, and that holding a vote was unnecessary.

“That’s something that we believe is very unfair for employees because they won’t be able to see what our last, best and final offer is,” he said Saturday.

‘We’ve run out of time’

A spokesman for the union, however, disagreed.

“We spent the last half-year at the bargaining table with them ? half a year,” said Mike Shimpock, speaking on behalf of the union Saturday. “And I think that we’ve run out of time and there’s been plenty of time.

“Apparently negotiations with them have been a waste of time because they refuse to try to even reach a deal with us.”

From 60,000 to 65,000 workers are affected by negotiations at 859 supermarkets from Bishop to San Diego. About 3,000 workers in 45 supermarkets in the county are affected by negotiations.

Jana Knittle walked out of the Oxnard center saying the employers were greedy.

“I think it’s how corporations are,” said Knittle, a bakery manager at an Albertsons in Simi Valley. “They want the dollar, and they don’t care who they have to step on or hurt or not appreciate ? as in their own employees ? to get it.”

Albertsons workers already voted to authorize a strike in March.

One issue that Knittle and other workers saw as contentious was wages.

Under the current contract, there is a two-tier wage system. New workers earn less while many veteran workers receive more.

Knittle said she believes that they should receive the same wages if they are doing the same job.

A tier system should not be included in the next contract because it causes “segregation,” bitterness, hostility and other negative feelings in the workplace, she said.

Dorothy Bewley walked into the center ready to vote.

She could not, however, because she did not have time to sit and listen to one of the presentations, which were given throughout the day.

Nevertheless, Bewley, who has worked at several Vons locations in the county for about 23 years, said she was upset that negotiations had come this far.

“I was going to vote because this is unfair,” said Bewley, 65 of Oxnard.

Bewley said she felt that employers were not offering good healthcare plans for employees, one of the main contentious issues during negotiations.

Workers who were hired after the most recent March 2004 contract, which is still in effect, have to wait several months to receive individual healthcare coverage and many months for family coverage.

Results expected today

Chase said that employers have offered a shorter waiting period for healthcare coverage and that considerable progress has been made during negotiations.

Shimpock, however, contended that no real progress was made regarding healthcare negotiations.

Voting results are expected to be announced today, union officials said.

If voters authorize leaders to call a strike, union negotiators would have to give 72-hour notice before doing so.

It would be the first time that a strike has taken place in Southern California since 2003-04.

Chase, spokesman for the employers, said negotiations should continue this week but could not provide a specific date. Union representative Shimpock, however, said no meetings are scheduled.

If a strike occurs, its impact on consumers, employers and workers would be “significant,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

“What’s happened is shoppers after the strike have been slow to return,” Jacobs, an expert on labor issues and health finance issues, said in reference to the 2003-04 strike.

Employers lost a big customer base because of the strike, he said, and shoppers were inconvenienced.

“A strike of any length of time will have that impact.”