More than 4,000 warehouse workers and truck drivers who deliver food and supplies to Southern California grocery stores are gearing up for a potential strike amid failed labor negotiations in a move that could leave some shelves empty this holiday season.

The Teamsters employees, who work for Albertsons (including Vons and Pavilions) and Kroger (Ralphs and Food 4 Less), are at an impasse over their employers’ plan to boost healthcare costs.

Union members currently pay a $20 copay for routine doctor appointments and a $100 copay for emergency room visits, union officials said. But the companies are proposing an additional monthly fee for healthcare coverage.

“The employers have been bargaining in bad faith,” said Lou Villavazo, who chairs the bargaining effort on behalf of Teamsters Joint Council 42. “We’ve had over 18 bargaining sessions with them and we provided our economic proposal … but no response.”

Warehouse workers and truck drivers who deliver food and supplies to Southern California grocery stores are gearing up for a potential strike amid failed labor negotiations in a move that could leave some supermarket shelves empty this holiday season. The Teamsters employees, who work for Albertsons (including Vons and Pavilions) and Kroger (including Ralphs and Food 4 Less), are at an impasse over their employers’ plan to boost healthcare costs. (Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 396)

Joint Council 42 represents 23 Teamsters locals in Southern California, Southern Nevada, Guam, Saipan and Hawaii. Villavazo said the Teamsters hopes to avoid a strike.

“We’re trying to do what we can to resolve this,” he said.

Albertsons’ response

In a statement issued late Thursday, Albertsons said it remains “committed to reaching an agreement with the union that will provide our employees with a competitive compensation package.”

That, Albertsons said, would include fair wages and affordable health care, while providing for their retirement and continuing to keep the company strong in Southern California’s ultra-competitive market.

Getting the word out

Workers from the local supermarkets staged a socially distanced gathering Thursday at an Albertsons in Buena Park where they distributed leaflets citing concerns with a link to an online petition to support affordable healthcare for themselves and their families.

The two sides have been in negotiations since early August over a contract that expired Sept. 20. Both parties agreed to an extension. But with no meaningful progress, the union gave a 72-hour notice on Tuesday to cancel the contract extension and prepare to strike.

The notice expires at 3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9.

Ralphs/Food 4 Less response

Ralphs/Food 4 Less management said the next bargaining session will take place Friday. In a statement released to employees on Wednesday, the company sought to reassure workers.

“The parties have only just started to discuss healthcare, and there is still a lot yet to be negotiated, including wages and pension,” the company said. “We look forward to continuing our discussions.”

Ralphs/Food 4 Less management said it contributes nearly $1,615 a month per employee for health care. “This is a substantial benefit and part of your total compensation package,” the statement said. “We will share updates as they are available.”

The company advised employees to continue working.

Tony Durazo, who has worked at a Ralphs warehouse in Compton for 22 years and earns $28 an hour, said he hopes to avoid a strike but will participate in a walkout if need be.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get a fair contract and a fair healthcare package,” the 48-year-old Compton resident said. “I understand that it’s expensive, but we’re the backbone of the company, and they need to take care of the people who are pumping out all of this work.”

A lesson learned

Southern California’s last major grocery strike, which ran from Oct. 3, 2003, through Feb. 29, 2004, involved 70,000 grocery workers and left a lot of economic carnage in its wake.

The walkout pitted United Food and Commercial Workers union employees against Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons and Pavilions stores, and it resulted in more than $1 billion dollars in losses for the industry.

It also splintered shopping habits. Some consumers who were used to buying their groceries at a Vons or Albertsons, for example, began trying other supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or Stater Bros.

That trend has continued as Walmart, Target and other big-box outlets beefed up their grocery sections.

Another walkout would be bad on several levels, according to Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director for the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.

“Southern California has still not recovered from that strike,” Flickinger said. “The region has lost hundreds of unionized stores over the last 16-year period, and several thousand workers have lost their jobs.”

Source: OC Register