An estimated 400 grocery workers, union representatives and supporters gathered in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday to demand a resolution to their long-running attempt to forge a new labor contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons.
Some 50,000 United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770members voted recently to authorize a strike against the supermarket companies. If a workable agreement isn’t reached by the Aug. 8 deadline, a strike could occur as early as the following day, said Rigo Valdez, a vice president with the union.
“On Aug. 8 we’ll vote up or down on the most current offer that’s on the table,” he said. “We want to try to get the best deal we can and we don’t want to strike.”
Wielding picket signs that read “Help Grocery Workers #MakeEndsMeet,” the throng gathered at Lafayette Park on Sixth Street and made its way to Third Street and Vermont Avenue — an intersection bracketed by a Vons supermarket on one side and a Ralphs on the other.
“What do we want?” a union representative shouted through a megaphone.
“A contract!” the workers chanted.
“And when do we want it?” the union rep shouted.
“Now!” they chanted.
The grocery workers’ labor contract expired March 6 and the current offer proposed by Ralphs and Albertsons — which also owns Vons,Pavilions and Safeway stores — is inadequate, union officials say. They complained recently that the offer includes an “insulting wage proposal,” “devastating cuts” to their pension plan and a refusal to increase funding to the workers’ health plan.
“Our members start at $10.20 per hour,” Valdez said. “We’d like to see that go up. Right now the economics are such that we’re barely staying above minimum wage. And California is one of the highest cost-of-living areas in the U.S.”
A typical full-time grocery worker earns about $17 an hour including benefits, but many are working part time, so their wages don’t stretch as far. The UFCW is seeking increased hours for part-time workers, which account for about 60 percent of the stores’ employees.
“The guarantee right now is that part-time employees will get 24 hours a week,” Valdez said. “We’d like that to go up to 32 hours a week.”
Rob O’Connell, who works part time at a Vons supermarket in Glendora, said the scheduling can be frustrating. O’Connell is a cashier, but also works in produce and in the deli department.
“The hours fluctuate,” the 44-year-old San Dimas resident said. “It’s hard to plan for anything when you have to work from 3 to 9 p.m. one day then from 4 to 8 a.m. another day.”
Kendra Doyel, a spokeswoman for Ralphs, said her company has offered pay increases and is vowing to keep health care costs affordable for employees.
“Our associates pay about $15 a week for full family coverage and the national average is $95 per week,” she said. “We also want to make sure their pension plan is secure.”
Doyel said additional meetings will be held this week with union officials.
“We remain hopeful and are committed to reaching an agreement at the bargaining table,” she said. “No one wins if a strike happens. We want to do everything we can to get a contract in place.”
Southern California’s last grocery strike in late 2003 and early 2004 lasted 141 days and cost the industry nearly $2 billion. This time around, shoppers will have plenty of additional options if picket lines should appear at their neighborhood supermarkets.
The reign of big supermarket chains has severely eroded, according to Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director for the retail consulting firmStrategic Resource Group.
“In a period of about 25 years unionized supermarkets went from selling 85 percent of the food in Southern California to about 35 percent,” he said. “The CEO of Dollar General, which just bought all of the Wal-Mart Express stores, used to be an executive vice president with Vons. And the new CEO of 99 Cents Only Stores came directly from Kroger, so you’ll see record expansion of food retail square footage in 2017 through 2019. And the market is already oversaturated with food retailers.”
Those include Bristol Farms, Stater Bros., Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. German discount grocer Aldi and Emeryville-based Grocery Outlet Bargain Market are gaining a foothold in the region’s retail market.
Consumers are also buying more groceries from online sources, such as Netgrocer, ShopFoodEx.com and Amazon.
Source: Los Angeles Daily News