California grocery workers vote on strike authorization

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Thousands of southern and central California grocery workers started voting Monday on whether to authorize their union to call a strike against several major supermarket chains.

About 47,000 workers at hundreds of Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores are eligible to vote this week. Results are expected to be released on March 27.

The possible strike would involve grocery clerks, meat cutters, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians represented by seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Negotiations with Ralphs, owned by Kroger, and Albertsons, owner of Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores, ended without agreement before the latest three-year contracts expired March 6.

The union said the next day that the companies’ wage proposal amounted to a 60-cent increase that was “shockingly low” and well below workers’ cost-of-living needs. Employees were asking for a $5-an-hour raise, among other proposals.

“Both companies have refused to agree to expand safety committees in the stores, and have yet to negotiate meaningful health and welfare benefits,” a United Food and Commercial Workers statement said.

The union said that during the final day of negotiations it emphasized the essential role grocery workers played during the coronavirus pandemic.

The union said bargaining committee member Erlene Molina, a Ralphs employee, told company negotiators: “We saw how people were acting like the world was ending, but we could not stay home. We knew that we had an obligation to our community, so we showed up every day.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that a Ralphs statement said the vote creates “unnecessary concern for our associates and communities, at a time when we should be coming together in good faith bargaining to find solutions and compromise. At Ralphs, we remain focused on settling a deal with the UFCW.”

Albertsons Companies said in a statement that the goal of the negotiation is “to provide our employees with a competitive total compensation package of wages, health, welfare and pension benefits.”

“We are committed to working collaboratively to ensure that we reach an agreement that is fair to our employees, good for our customers, and allows Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions to remain competitive in the Southern California market,” the statement said.

The union has not yet reached agreements with other supermarket chains, including Gelson’s, Stater Brothers & Super A.

Employees of Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons in 2019 voted to authorize a strike, but contracts ultimately were reached without a walkout.

A 2003-04 strike and lockout put nearly 70,000 Southern California grocery workers on picket lines for more than four months.

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