This weekend, an estimated 62,000 grocery workers in Southern California will vote — for the second time — on whether to give their union locals the go-ahead to strike.
Labor negotiations are dragging into the sixth month between the United Food and Commercial Workers and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons. Both sides, which continue to meet this week, are trying to hammer out a complete contract offer to present to the workers.
Healthcare benefits remain a divisive issue. So do wages and staffing levels.
With talks going slowly and frustration building, both sides are taking their fight public. On Wednesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson joined grocery workers protesting outside a Ralphs in Los Angeles.
In April, UFCW officials said their members had "overwhelmingly" voted to authorize union leaders to call a strike if they couldn't reach a contract. However, the contract negotiations have changed the healthcare and pension offerings enough that another vote is required, said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles.
The union said the chains want employees to pay more for insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays. The union's contract expired in March. Negotiations are being conducted under the supervision of a federal mediator.
"There isn't even a complete offer for us to vote on," Icaza said Wednesday. "What's on the table is unacceptable. The fact that there's not even a complete proposal to vote on is even more unacceptable."
The second strike vote will also be a way for labor officials to gauge the current mood of their members, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of New York-based Strategic Resource Group.
The strike vote this weekend "may not guarantee people are going to walk out, but the odds become highly likely that they will," Flickinger said.
The retailers are fighting back. This week, Albertsons and Vons began taking applications from people willing to cross a picket line and work during a strike.
On Wednesday, customers walking through the front door of the Albertsons store at West 39th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles were greeted with a sign offering $10- to $13-an-hour jobs "for temporary replacement associates due to a potential labor dispute at our store." Ralphs is not hiring replacement workers at this point, Ralphs spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said.
Vons and Pavilions are owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., and Albertsons by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn. Ralphs is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati.
Officials from Vons and Albertsons could not be reached for comment Wednesday.