So. Calif. grocery union seeks leverage in talks

August 22, 2011 - 2:35 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Union officials will take the results of a weekend vote to a federal mediator Monday, after union members resoundingly rejected health care proposals from major supermarket chains.

More than 90 percent of voters from the Southern California local of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has about 62,000 members, voted against the health proposal from Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons stores and automatically authorized union officials to call a strike after 72 hours.

Union local spokesman Mike Shimpock said the union would release vote details at a Monday news conference and report the results to the dispute's federal mediator.

More talks were likely to follow.

"Our members overwhelmingly authorized a strike because they want a fair contract, not a walkout," Rick Icaza, president of the grocery workers union Local 770 said in a written statement. "The offer from the employers is not complete or fair. The supermarket corporations' health care offer would significantly increase out of pocket costs for struggling families and bankrupt our health care benefits before the end of next year."

A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.

Vons stressed the fact that negotiations were ongoing.

"The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process," a Vons release said. "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."

To prepare for a possible strike, Albertsons has started to advertise for temporary replacement workers to make sure its stores can stay open, chain spokesman Fred Muir said Sunday.

"Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations and does not necessarily mean a strike will be called. Getting sidetracked by these tactics — especially when it is clear there is no complete contract offer on the table and because productive negotiations continue — will only delay our ability to reach a fair agreement for our associates," Muir said. "The real work toward getting a fair contract will happen at the negotiating table and we hope that's where the union leadership will focus its attention when we return to bargaining."

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 Sunday.

Union members have been working without a contract since March.

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.

But Shimpock said that the union is concerned about the long-term sustainability of the health care fund.

"With the amount they're offering now, the fund would go bankrupt by next September," he said. "We're worried about increased costs, of course. But it doesn't matter if premiums are $2 or $200 if the benefits are eventually eliminated."