By Mary O’KEEFE
This week the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 770 union voted overwhelmingly to strike if contract negotiations break down.
“The companies basically gave bonuses rather than [pay] increases,” said Rick Icaza, president of Local 770 in an interview with CVW. “They won’t fund our health and welfare program, won’t fund our pensions… For all those reasons [and more] the members gave us authority to [strike] as a last resort.”
The companies are agreeing to fund the health programs but not increase nor match the increase of funding as the health care programs’ costs rise, therefore passing the increases along to the employees, he added.
Other issues include an increased amount of time it would take to become a journeyman grocery clerk, which is a well-trained and experienced employee. The new contract, Icaza said, would increase the time it would take for a clerk to reach this level that includes a pay raise.
“In order to become a journeyman clerk [it would] be nine years,” he said.
The workers are also asking for wage increases instead of simple bonuses. The companies are proposing other reductions that, Icaza said, could directly affect the employees’ retirement plans.
“We don’t want to strike, we understand the impact on consumers, our communities and our members,” Icaza said in a prepared statement. “But the out-of-state corporations and hedge funds controlling the stores may leave us no choice. Despite profits of over a half billion dollars, they are still demanding our workers give up retirement and health care security and forgo raises for two years. That’s not fair, and it’s not right.”
UFCW has about 50,000 members. Their contract expired in March and negotiations have continued with the owners of Kroger Corp. – Ralphs Market – and Cerberus Capital – Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons.
There are 10 meetings planned between UFCW 770 and the grocery corporations from now through July and although they have some major disagreements, Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs, is optimistic.
“Ralphs is committed to reaching an agreement with union leadership at the one place an agreement can be reached, the bargaining table. A strike authorization vote is premature and only serves to cause concern for associates and customers. We encourage union leadership to return to the table on our agreed upon upcoming dates though July and work out an agreement that is good for our associates and allows us to remain competitive in the market,” Doyel stated in an email response to CVW.
Most residents in the area remember the last major grocery store strike in 2003. At that time about 850 stores from the then-three chains (Albertsons and Vons are now owned by the same parent company) participated in the strike that affected about 67,300 employees. It took four months to come to an agreement between the union and corporate owners.
“It is amazing to me that given what [the employees] went through in 2003 that they would still vote to strike. It speaks to how strong they think of the [division in the negotiations],” Icaza said.
He added there is not a “drop dead” date for striking if an agreement is not reached. At this point he is just waiting to see how negotiations proceed.
Calls to Vons/Albertsons were not returned as of press time.