Grocery union gets OK to strike

The labor union that represents 62,000 Southern California grocery workers said its members had "overwhelmingly" voted to authorize union leaders to call a strike if they can't reach a contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons.

On Friday, officials from the seven United Food and Commercial Workers locals declined to say how many workers actually turned out to cast ballots in the last two days. But Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, the largest of the area locals, said the turnout was substantial and the number in favor of the strike was "overwhelming."

UFCW Local 1428, based in Claremont, reported on its website that 92% of the voters favored the strike authorization. A source at UFCW Local 324 in Orange County said 91% of the voters favored it.

For the strike-authorization measure to pass, at least two-thirds of the union voters participating had to support it.

Strike authorization does not mean that a walkout or employer lockout is imminent. Some analysts said it could help jump-start the labor talks, which have dragged on for weeks.

The labor contract that was reached in 2007 expired March 6 and is being extended day to day. It covers checkers, baggers, meat cutters and other grocery workers across the region, including those employed by Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co.; Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway Inc.; and Albertsons, owned by SuperValu Inc.

Though the full list of issues under debate is unclear, Icaza said points of contention include the retailers' wanting to cut back their contributions to workers' pensions, increase workers' share of health insurance premiums and eliminate HMOs as a healthcare option. He said the chains also want to shrink meat cutters' hours and use more management employees in stores, which could potentially eliminate 700 union jobs.

Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs said in a statement: "Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations and does not necessarily mean a strike will be called. Getting sidetracked by these tactics will only delay our ability to reach an agreement on a fair contract for our associates."

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