Grocery store workers vote to authorize strike - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Grocery store workers throughout Southern California vote to authorize strike

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The union representing about 62,000 employees of Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons across Southern California was poised Sunday to call a strike if a new labor deal cannot be reached.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers, employed at stores from Santa Barbara County to the Mexico border, have been working without a contract since March 6, and more than 90 percent of those who voted over the past two days agreed to authorize a strike.

The union wants the supermarkets to contribute more to a health care fund it claims will run out of money within a year.

Under the current contract offer, workers would pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage.

Apparently no tentative agreement on wages has been reached.

A 141-day strike in 2003-04, which cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion, led some customers to make long-term changes to their shopping habits by going to independent grocers and specialty outlets.

Both sides agreed that the last strike hurt both sides.

"We don't want another strike, but we need to protect our health benefits for ourselves and our families," Mario Frias, a Ralphs employee, said Saturday as union members cast ballots.

Mickey Kasparian, the president of UFCW Local 135 in Los Angeles, said a federal mediator would continue to work toward a resolution, but a strike could be called in five or six days if there are no positive developments.

"If we don't get a deal, we'll take this fight to the streets," Kasparian said.

A spokesman for the grocery chains called the strike authorization vote a common negotiating tactic.


SAN DIEGO (CNS/News 8) - More than 90 percent of unionized grocery store workers throughout Southern California voted to reject the proposed contract with Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons, which sets the stage for a possible strike.

 United Food and Commercial Workers represents about 62,000 grocery store employees who have been working without a contract since March 6.

Union leaders claim their health care benefits are being eroded and that a healthcare fund is in danger of going bankrupt.

"It sounds like negotiations have been going on for months and nothing's changed," Donna Pepper, who works at a Mid-City Albertsons, said on Friday, when voting on the strike authorization began.

Mickey Kasparian, president of UFCW Local 135, was recommending that the latest management offer be rejected.

If nothing changes after another week or so, and members vote to authorize a strike, the union may authorize a walkout, he said.

"If we don't get a deal, we'll take this fight to the streets," Kasparian said.

The last major strike affecting Southern California grocery stores was in 2003 and lasted 141, costing supermarkets an estimated $1.5 billion.


SAN DIEGO (CNS/News 8) - Unionized workers at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons supermarkets in San Diego County voted overwhelmingly to reject the current labor contract proposal and to authorize a strike, according to union leadership.

Mickey Kasparian, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, tells News 8 that more than 90 percent of the union membership sided with the union, giving the green light for a walkout, if necessary.

The overall vote tallies for grocery store unions throughout Southern California should be counted by early Sunday.

Union leaders contend the stores are trying to take away the workers' health care benefits. The market chain denies the claim.

"It sounds like negotiations have been going on for months and nothing's changed," said Donna Pepper, who works at a Mid-City Albertsons.

She said her colleagues at a morning meeting at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley were angry and bitter.

"We feel not respected," Pepper said.

Mickey Kasparian, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, said he recommended that the latest offer by employers -- presented Wednesday -- be rejected.

He called the offer one of very slight movement on the part of employers, while the unions offered larger concessions earlier in the week.

Results of the voting should be known by late Saturday or Sunday morning, according to Kasparian.

He said a federal mediator has asked for the vote totals and expects more negotiating sessions in the future, but he said if there is no positive movement after about five or six days, a strike could be called.

"If we don't get a deal, we'll take this fight to the streets," Kasparian said.

Officials of the grocery chains said recently that their proposals would limit employees' costs and raise company contributions to a health care fund.

It would also maintain the current prescription drug co-payments and the annual deductible and out-of-pocket maximums in the PPO plan.

The companies also proposed to continue offering an HMO option, with no change to medication co-payments.

Kasparian called the proposal inadequate.

The 62,000 union grocery workers at the three chains in Southern California have already authorized a strike, if necessary, but Kasparian said he wanted to present the most recent offer to UFCW members and give them another chance to consider whether they should walk off the job.

A grocery workers strike and lockout that began in 2003 lasted 141 days.

Union officials have condemned the grocery chains' health-care offer, saying workers would be forced to spend almost half of their salaries to cover health costs.

The grocery chains insist, however, that the latest proposal would maintain most health-care expenses at their current levels and cost workers only $9 a week for single coverage or $23 for family coverage.

"The employers' goal throughout these negotiations is to provide their employees with a solid compensation package, including affordable health care, and to also produce an agreement that will enable the companies to compete in Southern California in a difficult economy with aggressive, low-cost competition," according to a statement released by the companies when the health-care proposal was offered.

Although the grocers have reached an agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 on pensions, there is still no accord on health care or wages.

Grocery workers voted in April to authorize a strike but will cast ballots again today and Saturday in response to the latest offer.

Officials from both sides said today they hope to avoid a walkout.

"Nobody wants to go on strike," union spokesman Mike Shimpock told City News Service. "It'll hurt the market, it'll hurt us ... but we have to draw a line in the sand here and say we need a fair deal.

"This vote is about sending a message to corporations for us and for everybody," he said. "If you work hard, you should be able to support your family."

Shimpock noted that the health-care dispute is not based on the amount of premiums paid by the employees, but on the amount of money paid by the grocery chains into a health care trust fund -- payments Shimpock said have actually decreased over the past decade.

He said if the employers don't agree to put more money into the trust fund, it will go bankrupt within about a year, leaving thousands of workers without health care.

Final results were expected to be announced Sunday or Monday. The vote does not automatically mean a strike will be called -- the workers are only voting to authorize union organizers to call a strike if negotiations break down.

Meanwhile, the grocery chains have been making contingency plans in case a walkout does occur.

"We want to avoid a strike," Ralphs spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said. "The best thing for everyone is to stay at the table and continue negotiating. Our workers want to keep working. Our stores are open and ready for customers, but should something change, we have a plan in place to make sure we can take care of everyone going forward. But we certainly hope that doesn't happen and that we don't have to put things into place."

The grocery workers' previous contract expired March 6, but they have continued to work under the terms of the previous pact.

The most recent contract was ratified in 2007 after about seven months of negotiations. In 2003-04, a grocery workers strike and lockout dragged on for 141 days, wiping out the savings of most workers and costing supermarkets an estimated $1.5 billion.


SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Grocery stores around the county are gearing up for the possiblility of another employee strike.

The five-month strike and lockout back in 2003 cost workers and stores billions of dollars. Now they seem to be on the verge of another strike.

In this Consumer Alert report, Richard Allyn has more on when workers are expected to vote on a new contract and how some stores are already preparing for the chance it's not approved.

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