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Grocery union gains strike power

Times Staff Writer

Union negotiators will head back into contract talks with Southern California’s largest supermarket chains this week armed with new leverage -- the permission of Albertsons workers to call a strike.

“We needed to send a message to Albertsons,” said Suzanne Castro, a clerk at a store in Oceanside. Castro said she was frustrated by the slow pace of talks.

Castro was one of thousands of Albertsons workers who voted Sunday to authorize the United Food and Commercial Workers union to call a strike.

The contract, signed three years ago after a bitter 141-day strike and lockout, was set to expire March 5 but was extended to April 9 at the urging of a federal mediator.

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Castro said Sunday’s vote by members of union locals was about getting Albertsons and the other employers to sit down to serious negotiations. “It wasn’t a vote to strike,” Castro said. “We don’t want a strike, we just want a fair contract.”

The union did not release Sunday’s vote tally, but noted that there were more than 11,000 votes cast and that the union’s constitution dictates that 66% must vote yes for it to win strike authorization. The union has not scheduled similar votes for employees of Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway Inc.'s Vons, the other two large chains involved in the talks.

Although bargaining often continues for months after a contract has expired in many regions, such lengthy negotiations were unusual in Southern California until the strike and lockout that began in 2003.

In 1995, negotiators reached a multi-year contract a full year in advance of the deadline. And the 1999 pact was agreed upon eight months before the contract was to expire, the union said.

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Supervalu Inc.'s Albertsons said in a statement Monday that it remained “committed to working together with a federal mediator and the unions at the bargaining table and we have every reason to believe we can achieve a mutually beneficial contract.

“We all know that nobody wins in a strike -- not our employees, our companies or our customers,” the company said.

Albertsons said Sunday’s vote was not “in the best interests of the employees or our ongoing negotiations.”

The biggest sticking point in the current talks is how much money the employers will agree to put into health insurance benefits for union workers.

Sunday’s strike authorization vote gives union leaders the ability to call a strike if they believe that they have reached an impasse at the bargaining table.

It does not set a strike date or even guarantee a strike. Under current agreements, the earliest that a strike could be called is April 13 or when the companies present a last and best offer.

The union said it chose Albertsons over Ralphs and Vons as the first target of a strike vote because it believes that the chain would be the least likely of the three to withstand a costly work stoppage.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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