Union vote raises grocery angst

Times Staff Writers

The prospect of a strike at Albertsons grocery stores conjured up an unhappy sense of deja vu for workers and customers Sunday as they wondered what was ahead.

The three-year contract for workers at the three largest Southland grocery chains is set to expire April 9 after two extensions in the last month. On Sunday, union workers at Supervalu Inc.'s Albertsons were voting on whether to give union leaders the authority to call a strike.

Still fresh in the minds of workers and customers was the lengthy impasse during the 2003-2004 grocery-store strike and lockout in Southern California.


“I don’t want to go on strike,” said Arturo Loza, 39, of Gardena, a 20-year Albertsons employee. “I’m still recovering from the last one. I came this close to losing my house.”

Shoppers, meanwhile, recalled how they went out of their way to find grocery stores, such as Trader Joe’s, Costco Wholesale Corp. and Stater Bros., that were not involved in the labor dispute.

“I’ll go somewhere else to support them,” said shopper Alisha Mitchell, 38, of Long Beach, as she loaded bags of groceries into her SUV.

But because of prior agreements, the earliest Albertsons workers could walk off the job would be April 13, and even a strike that day would be unlikely, union representatives say.

“The last thing we want is a strike,” said Michael Shimpock of SG&A; Campaigns, a Pasadena media and political consulting firm hired by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to speak about the talks. “But the employers have left us no choice but to authorize a strike. We must show them we are serious about demanding a fair and timely contract.”

Albertsons last week issued a statement calling the strike vote an “irresponsible” move “to frighten our employees and alarm our customers.”

“It is disturbing that the unions are considering the possibility of a strike at this stage in the negotiations, given the hardships incurred just over three years ago by our employees, our customers and our companies during the last labor dispute,” the company said.

Albertsons has 22,000 UFCW workers at 249 stores in the region.

Seven of the union’s Southern California locals are locked in negotiations with Albertsons, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway Inc.'s Vons over a new agreement. Shoppers don’t like the idea of labor dispute when the 2003 strike and lockout is still such a recent memory.

Ann Hernandez and her sister, Karen Caballero, stood in the parking lot of the Albertsons in Irvine discussing how for months they shopped at other supermarkets to support the striking grocery workers.

“I was so glad to get that over,” said Caballero, remarking at the difficult toll the strike took on shoppers and the workers. “I’m hoping they settle and we don’t have to get to that point again.”

The dispute disrupted shopping patterns across Southern California as people descended on the chains not afflicted by picket lines, jamming parking lots and creating long checkout lines.

Lori Robinson, a Thousand Oaks mother and regular Albertsons shopper, said she would avoid the store if it was struck.

“I would not cross the picket line. I just don’t do that,” Robinson said.

Although union and supermarket officials have said little about the current bargaining, people familiar with the talks say that the two sides are hung up over how much the employers should contribute to union workers’ health insurance.

Michael Covey, 19, of Downey, said he didn’t work for Albertsons during the first labor dispute. He said he planned to vote to authorize a strike to give union leaders leverage in their negotiations.

“If there is no possibility of us going out on strike, the company won’t be scared, they won’t offer anything worth taking,” Covey said.

The supermarket chains say that the current structure works well to contain labor expenses in the face of growing competition from untraditional grocery retailers such as Costco and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Union officials have made a priority of improving health benefits for the roughly 33,000 workers hired by the three chains under the current contract.

Although the 32,000 veteran grocery workers still don’t pay health insurance premiums and have low medical deductibles and co-payments, new hires must wait 12 to 18 months before they are eligible for health insurance. They then get a plan that puts a larger burden of the cost on the employee.

“The issue is not that we won’t compromise,” Shimpock said. “We are not stupid we know how much this all costs, so lets reach a middle ground.”

The vote is the most significant move to date in a complex chess game between the UFCW and the companies.

The union said it picked Albertsons to be the first target because the level of debt at Supervalu made it less able to withstand a strike. Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu borrowed $6.1 billion last year to purchase Albertsons and its non-union sibling, Bristol Farms.

The UFCW was tallying votes Sunday night, with plans to release only the outcome of voting -- but not vote tallies or turnout.