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Union issues grocers a warning

Times Staff Writer

The Southern California grocery workers union turned up the heat a little more Thursday by warning the big supermarket chains that it was prepared to cancel a temporary agreement that so far has prevented a strike.

The contract for 65,000 workers at Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons was set to expire March 5 but has remained in force through a rolling extension that requires a 72-hour cancellation notice by either the United Food and Commercial Workers union or the supermarket chains.

On Thursday, UFCW Local 770 President Rick Icaza said the Los Angeles-based bargaining unit was prepared to give the employers notice of cancellation sometime next week if the supermarket companies didn’t start to compromise in contract talks set to resume Monday.

“We don’t want to strike,” Icaza said. “But our members are willing to fight for what they are entitled to.”

A spokeswoman for the grocery chains said that the contract extension agreement remained in place and that “no work stoppage can occur.”

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“The companies are using this recess in the talks to prepare for next week’s negotiations. It is unfortunate that the union is focusing its efforts on strike preparations,” said Adena Tessler, a public relations consultant hired by the grocery chains.

Icaza made his comments in front of newly printed picket signs that were held by several dozen of the union faithful at Local 770’s headquarters just west of downtown.

Union workers expressed frustration that six months of contract talks have failed to produce an agreement.

“These companies make money hand over hand while the workers struggle week to week,” said Chris Zazueta, a longtime Ralphs employee.

Although the workers and their leadership expressed a willingness to strike, they were reluctant to talk about whether they could withstand the type of 141-day work stoppage that disrupted grocery shopping during the last round of contract talks in 2003-04.

Zazueta wouldn’t talk about whether he had stashed money away in preparation for a strike. Albertsons worker Sharlette Villacorta declined to answer questions about whether she had stockpiled food or changed household spending habits in preparation for a strike. Icaza also declined to answer questions about the union’s strike fund.

After making progress earlier in the talks on improvements in health benefits and other issues, the negotiations have gotten hung up on funding for the health plan and pay raises. Workers haven’t received a wage increase since 2002.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com


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