Recalling memories of protracted labor talks that led Southern California grocery workers to the picket lines seven years ago, the United Food and Commercial Workers union is holding a strike authorization vote next week and warning its members to be prepared in case they have to walk off the job.
A labor contract that was reached in 2007 expired in March 6. It covered about 62,000 grocery workers in Southern California, including those employed by Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co.; Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions stores; and Albertsons, which is owned by SuperValu Inc.
Notifications announcing the April 20 vote date and seven voting locations were emailed to members and posted at stores Thursday.
For the strike authorization measure to pass, at least two-thirds of the union voters participating have to support it. Approval of the measure does not necessarily mean that there will be a strike, but union leaders say it would give them a stronger negotiating position. Contract talks between the union and three of the region's leading grocery retailers have been sluggish for months, as both sides debate employee wages, healthcare benefits and pensions.
The contract is now being extended on a day-by-day basis. Either side can cancel the agreement with 72 hours' notice.
Both sides are expected to return to the bargaining table April 26.
Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said union leadership and members want to avoid a strike. But he warned that the cost of benefits is rising at the same time that the trust fund that pays those benefits, and is jointly managed by both the retailers and the union locals, is dwindling.
"If they keep extending these talks, we'll end up with no ability to pay the benefits that our members are entitled to," Icaza said. "So we're prepared to do whatever it takes."
Officials for Albertsons and Safeway said Thursday that talk of a strike, or even the threat of one, was simply a distraction that would impede the progress of negotiating a new contract.
"The best course of action is to continue negotiating and reach an agreement," said Kendra Doyle, a spokeswoman for Ralphs.