Contract negotiations between Food 4 Less and the United Food and Commercial Workers union are sputtering, a union representative said, increasing the likelihood that thousands of grocery workers will strike soon.
Food 4 Less, owned by Kroger Co., is the last remaining grocery chain in Southern California yet to reach a deal on a new contract. The previous contract expired June 8.
The union has already ratified contracts with Vons, Albertsons and the Kroger-owned Ralphs chain after weeks of long negotiations.
Union officials say Food 4 Less workers voted in July to authorize a strike if discussions break down. A strike would involve nearly 6,500 workers in about 100 stores in Southern California.
"A strike vote was authorized and negotiations are faltering," said Mike Shimpock, a UFCW Local 770 spokesman.
Shimpock said Food 4 Less is pushing to cut the number of full-time jobs, move the number of hours guaranteed to workers from a weekly basis to a longer monthly basis, and pull out of the fund that pays for health-care expenses for grocery employees. Pay raises benefit only the top tier of employees, he said.
Managers have urged some Food 4 Less workers to resign from the union so they can continue working during a strike without incurring fines or disciplinary action by the UFCW, Shimpock said.
One pamphlet handed to workers explained that "resigning from the union will not affect your pay, pension, medical benefits and all other benefits paid by the company." It also included an example of a resignation letter as a guideline for interested employees.
"This is completely emblematic of the behavior of completely wealthy corporations that are enriching themselves without contributing to the working class and the middle class recovery," Shimpock said.
For its part, Food 4 Less said that "contracts can only be settled at the table" and urged the union to keep their employees working during negotiations.
"Food 4 Less' proposal includes wage increases above minimum wage, savings with the same great health care associates have today and a stable pension fund," spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said Friday.
Doyel said the company sent out a memo in response to "an overwhelming number" of employees who asked how they could keep working if the union called for a strike.
"We are not pushing them to resign by any means, we just gave them the information they requested so they can make an informed decision for themselves and their families," she said.
In 2003, a drawn-out fight between the union and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons turned into an 141-day strike. The battle reportedly cost the grocery stores about $2 billion and left many union members in debt.