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SoCal grocery workers aim to reverse contract setbacks

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San Jose Mercury News

LOS ANGELES – The last time Southern California’s largest supermarket chains battled with their employees’ union over a labor contract, the dispute escalated into a strike-lockout that dragged for nearly five months.

With little more than a month to go on the current deal, a new slate of negotiations could produce another brawl over health care benefits and a two-tiered wage system – the same contract issues the union begrudgingly agreed to three years ago.

The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Local 770 in Los Angeles, the largest union local in the region, is scheduled to begin contract talks Monday with Ralphs Grocery Co. Talks between UFCW Local 324 in Buena Park and Albertsons Inc. have been under way since last month.

Union negotiations with Safeway Inc., which operates Vons and Pavilions stores, are expected to begin in coming weeks, but no schedule had been set.

In all, labor contracts covering about 65,000 employees at 785 stores from San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield south to San Diego are set to expire March 5.

“Both sides are trying to avoid the very debilitating long-term strike and lockout that occurred last time,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

Ralphs locked out employees on Oct. 11, 2003, after Southern California grocery workers voted to strike against Vons and Pavilions.

At the time, Ralphs, Safeway and Albertsons were negotiating with the workers’ union. Ralphs brought in replacement workers to keep its stores running. About 59,000 workers were idled at 859 sites.

The strike cost store owners more than $2 billion by some estimates and resulted in the loss of many customers. It also left employees struggling to make ends meet, forcing some to lose their homes.

The union and the grocery chains eventually agreed on a settlement that split employees into separate wage and benefit classes.

For example, veteran employees qualified for health care after four months and didn’t have to pay any health premiums. Workers hired since the last contract deal have to wait 12 months or more to qualify for health coverage – longer for their dependents – and have been asked to pay premiums for health care.

A study by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education released last week found only 7 percent of Southern California grocery workers hired since the 2003-2004 strike and lockout were receiving benefits as of September.

“We really had no alternative but to accept the settlement,” said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have done everything we did last time, which is work to come back another day and try to renegotiate things to recover some of the losses we sustained.”

The union is off to a good start.

Last month, it reached a tentative agreement with the Southern California regional chain Stater Bros. that would abolish the two-tier wage system and raise newer employees’ pay in line with those of veterans. But while the chain agreed to boost its contribution per worker to the union’s health care plan, it said it would only do so if the other grocery chains back that option as well.

The situation reflects a key difference in the approach the union and the grocery chains are taking.

Last time, the union locals negotiated a single agreement with Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs. The contract terms also applied to workers at Stater Bros., which chose not to participate in the negotiations.

This time, all sides are coordinating their bargaining, but each of the grocery chains is negotiating separately with the seven Southern California union locals.

“What it means is there’s going to be 21 separate negotiations,” said Adena Tessler, spokeswoman for Ralphs, Albertsons, and Vons.

Tessler declined to speculate on what specific proposals the supermarket chains are prepared to make, but said “rising health care costs, wages and remaining profitable in today’s market is hugely important.”

During the last contract talks the companies sought to slash health care costs in order to remain competitive.

Icaza declined to specify how much of a wage increase the union is seeking. He conceded, however, that he’s under pressure from union members to get a better contract this time.

“I think we will,” he said. “But it’s just a question of letting the companies know that we have to turn these things around, and hopefully, we’ll avoid having to strike to accomplish it.”