SAN FRANCISCO — As their latest contract extension ended last week, hundreds of San Francisco Bay Area grocery workers gathered for a press conference outside the Oakland hotel where their union, the UFCW, is in tense contract talks with the giant Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger grocery chains.

In response to the employers’ refusal to extend the contract again, “30,000 Bay Area grocery workers are giving them a deadline,” said UFCW Bay Area Coalition spokesperson Ron Lind. Without significant progress by Jan. 24, he said, “a major escalation of our campaign against these profitable grocery companies will begin, utilizing every weapon at our disposal.” A Day of Action is slated for Jan. 25.

The grocery companies are demanding deep cuts in health and pension benefits, a two-tiered wage structure, and elimination of important job security provisions. They rejected a union proposal saving the companies $100 million during three years. Last week the employers proposed they be allowed unlimited contracting out of grocery clerks’ work.

Over 75,000 customers have already pledged to boycott the stores on the union’s call.

“We’re prepared to negotiate for as long as it takes to reach a settlement,” Lind said. “But if the employers continue to demand the wholesale slaughter of our benefits and contract provisions, our workers are prepared to engage in that battle.”

The corporate giants “have shown their contempt and their disrespect for the very people who made them profitable,” said 28-year grocery worker Deborah Talcott.

Albertsons clerk Mario Samayoa said the chains’ proposed cuts would affect “not just me, but my whole community. Workers need a good union job and benefits to live a decent life.”

Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, and Chuck Mack, leader of the Teamsters Joint Council, pledged their organizations’ full support for the grocery workers’ struggle.

Gregory Reed of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists quoted Dr. King’s statement that “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is most shocking and inhumane,” adding, “We will not stand for corporate greed over human need.”

Earlier, representatives of key East Bay labor and people’s struggles gathered at Oakland’s Federal Building for a noontime Speak-out for Workers Rights organized by Jobs with Justice. The hour-long speak-out was followed by the annual reading of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famed April 1967 antiwar speech, organized by the People’s Non-Violent Response Coalition.

Besides grocery workers, struggles of Comcast workers, teachers, hotel workers, airport screeners, and youth rights organizations were highlighted. Many speakers urged ending the Iraq war and bringing the troops home now.

Judy Goff, head of the Alameda County Central Labor Council, singled out President Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger for special criticism for “working in league on an agenda for Corporate America” in their drive to privatize Social Security and the pensions of California’s public workers.

Scientific Herbert, speaking for Books not Bars, drew applause with his call to shut down the controversial California Youth Authority prison system and to use the funds instead for schools, job placement programs, and other opportunities for youth.

Sonia Bustamante of UNITE HERE Local 2850 urged continuing support for workers at the Claremont Hotel and Spa, who have struggled for a contract and the right to organize for over three years.

Oakland Education Association leader Bill Balderston characterized the drive to close several schools and increase charter schools as an attempt to return to the glaring inequities prior to Brown vs. Board of Education. He said the union’s struggle for a decent contract is part of the fight for quality public education.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, talks continue between UNITE HERE Local 2 and 14 premier hotels, as the two-month “cooling off period” approaches its end Jan. 23.

On Jan. 7 the union proposed three “settlement packages” with expiration dates ranging from 2006 to 2008. All are based on employer payment of the entire health and welfare cost, wage hikes, improved pensions, and card check-neutrality agreements.

“The Multi-Employer Group,” which says they are in a hurry to settle this dispute, is now free to settle any time they want in their choice of three different ways,” the union said in a statement. See related story, page 8.