August 21, 2011 (San Diego) – A grocery workers’ strike at Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs supermarkets could begin as early as this week. Union members voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to authorize leaders to call a strike, with 90% voting in favor.
Workers have been without a contract since March 6th. At issue is a proposal by the supermarket chains to push healthcare contribution costs onto workers at rates averaging $96 per employee, though some workers with families could be forced to come up with hundreds of dollars more per month, with no pay raise. Workers’ representatives also contend that the employers' offer underfunds health benefits and that the fund will run out of money.
“I have the most amazing members,” Mickey Kasparian, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 in San Diego, posted on his Facebook page. “Yesterday, more than 10,000 grocery workers in San Diego authorized a strike by an OVERWHELMING margin to protect their health benefits. I am so proud of them for standing up for themselves and their family.”
Workers voted to support a strike back in April by a 90% margin -- then voted again Saturday to affirm that position after months of failed negotiations.
The soonest a strike could occur would be 72 hours after votes are counted, however it’s expected that both sides will likely attempt another round at the bargaining table with a federal mediator, the San Diego Union-Tribune has reported. The strike would impact stores throughout Southern California at all three chains, potentially.
“Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations and does not necessarily mean a strike will be called by the union,” Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyel said in a prepared statement released on Saturday, the Los Angeles Times reported. The statement added that all three grocery chains “remain committed to reaching a contract that is good for our employees and keeps these union jobs sustainable for the future.”
A statement issued by Vons after Saturday’s vote said the company remains hopeful of reaching a settlement. “The rhetoric around strike votes and harming the companies needlessly alarms and confuses our employees and customers. Likewise, it only distracts the parties from reaching a settlement.”
For employees like Renee Chappell, bakery manager at Albertsons in Spring Valley, the proposal by grocery stores would take a bit bite out of her household budget—leaving her with $200 less per month than she takes home now, the Union-Tribune reported. “I feel like my employer let me down. I feel like the union let me down.”
Victoria Frantz, an Albertsons employee, told Rancho Bernardo Patch that she makes around $24,000 a year in her part-time job. “I can’t afford to pay thousands more so I can bring my kids to a doctor.”
For the supermarkets, a strike could have devastating consequences. A grocery workers’ strike in 2003 and 2004 cost the chains an estimated $2 billion in lost business. Some customers shifted allegiances to competitors such as Stater Brothers (where employees are unionized) as well as non-unionized competitors such as CostCo and Trader Joe’s. With a plethora of farmer’s markets now throughout San Diego County, shoppers now have even more alternatives to crossing a picket line. (View ECM’s guide to fresh, local produce locations: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/0809freshguide)
A poll in the San Diego Union-Tribune this morning showed nearly 40% of participants indicated that they would not cross picket lines and would support striking workers by shopping elsewhere.
If no positive movement is seen in the next several days, however, a strike appears likely.
“If we don’t get a deal, “ Kasparian pledged, “We’ll take this fight to the streets.”