LOS ANGELES - Bargaining went down to the wire, with the latest session scheduled for today between the United Food and Commercial Workers locals that represent 62,000 Southern California grocery workers and their three grocery chain employers: Ralph's, Albertson's and Vons.
"Continuous negotiations" will start that day between the seven locals and the three chains, the union said in a statement which followed a strike authorization vote that drew more than 90 percent approval the prior weekend. The old contract between the chains and the locals expired six months ago.
Unlike a prior contentious struggle - which led to a months-long strike - the top issue this time between the two sides is health care costs. The prior strike revolved around the three chains' efforts to cut pay, pensions, health care, and virtually everything else in the face of what they called the threat from always low-paying Wal-Mart.
Local 770 President Rick Icaza told his members the three firms' health care proposals would cost an average worker with a family around $11,000 yearly. The average wage for the grocery workers is $20,000, he added. Local 770 is one of the seven locals bargaining with the chains.
He also said the three companies could easily afford to pay for workers' health insurance, as their health care costs have declined over the last 10 years. The parent firms of the three local grocery chains - Safeway, Kroger, and SuperValu - netted a combined $3 billion last year, he noted.
Kroger was responsible for three-fourths of that and paid out $500 million to Wall Street and other investors, far more than paying for the workers' health benefits would cost, Icaza pointed out.
The unions gained support from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, clergy groups, civil rights groups, and community groups. The Rev. Jesse Jackson met with chain management on the workers' behalf just before the strike authorization vote.
"Our members overwhelmingly authorized a strike because they want a fair contract, not a walkout," Icaza said. "The offer from the employers is not complete or fair."
He also noted that the three chains have not even put a wage offer on the table yet.
"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.
"Their offer just begins with premiums. The corporations don't offer enough money to fund the benefits themselves - and the plan will run out of money within 16 months, eliminating all benefits and health care coverage for 62,000 grocery workers.
"We don't want to strike. We just want a fair deal that lets us take care of our families," Icaza concluded. "We are sending a message to these corporations that if you work hard, you should get fair pay that allows you to take care of your family. Grocery workers hope the corporations will return to the table to negotiate a compromise fair to their workers."