By Mary O’KEEFE
Grocery shopping may soon become more complicated. Beyond the continuing rising prices and supply chain issues, thousands of workers and members of the labor union United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in central and Southern California have voted to authorize a strike.
Negotiations are ongoing this week; however, union workers at Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons have voted to call a strike if necessary. There has not been a date set for the strike.
UFCW represents about 47,000 workers at the grocery stores including clerks, meat cutters, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.
According to a statement from Albertsons Companies, “The outcome of the strike authorization vote does not change anything related to this process.”
Ralphs stated stores remain open in Southern California despite the strike authorization and, like Albertsons, stated the vote does not change the negotiation process.
Kim Sisson, a front-end supervisor at Vons in La Crescenta, said though the strike is about wages it also focuses on safety.
The pandemic has been a stressful time for everyone but for grocery store frontline workers it has been particularly challenging. They continued to go to work while many customers had their groceries delivered or picked up from the store.
“It has been rough. A lot of us at the La Crescenta store either care for or live with family members who are immunocompromised,” she said.
Sisson added she and her fellow workers continue to deal with safety issues including approaching people who refuse to wear their masks during mandatory mask mandates.
“These are people we have known for years and they are not wearing a mask,” she said. Confronting them about the mask became an “unpleasant situation.”
“A good number of employees got sick and we have some [who] have long COVID and others that we lost,” she said.
She added the workers want to be part of the discussion with regard to safety not only for this and future pandemics but in other issues. She pinpointed the need for a store safety committee in stores that have an uptick in shoplifting.
She said employees should be part of the safety conversation from masks to security.
They are asking for a pay raise as well.
“[We’re asking for] five dollars over the course of a three-year contract; [management] is offering 60 cents a year,” Sisson said.
According to a statement from Ralphs, this is a 22% increase.
“Our proposal invests $141 million in new wages and prevents increases in health costs. This is a serious commitment by Ralphs to Southern California and to our exceptional associates,” said Robert Branton, vice president of Operations at Ralphs.
“[The union] has had little time to talk about health care,” Sisson added.
The UFCW did recently receive major support from fellow union members.
In a Wednesday release from the union, it was announced that the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO unanimously approved the UFCW’s request to support a ULP (unfair labor practice) strike at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions.
“Union leaders from numerous industries expressed their full support for grocery store workers who recently authorized their UFCW local unions across Central and Southern California to call a strike if deemed necessary,” stated Wednesday’s release.
Randy Cammack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42, stated his members will not cross the picket lines and will stop delivering merchandise to the grocery stores in solidarity with UFCW members if a strike is called.
The grocery workers contract expired on March 6; parties remain far apart on reaching an agreement but are still negotiating.
Workers at the grocery stores voted to authorize a strike in 2019; however, an agreement was reached and a walkout was avoided. The strike most in the area will remember lasted four months in 2003-2004. That saw thousands of workers on the picket line.