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Grocery workers give notice to end contract extension

In a bid to speed up negotiations that have dragged on for more than eight months, union officials representing supermarket workers in Southern California took a step closer Thursday night to going on strike.

Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers gave 72 hours notice to cancel their labor contract extension with the region’s three leading grocery chains, a mandatory step before a walkout. Once the contract is no longer in effect, grocery workers can strike at any time.

The move does not mean that workers will necessarily walk off the job Sunday at the three chains: Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons.

The union members could instead keep working while negotiations continue.

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Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Orange County, said union officials felt they had no choice but to take this step.

“It’s time to bring these negotiations to an end,” Conger said. “The talks have been going at a glacial pace.

“If the employers don’t snap out of it, and give our members a proposal that we can live with, the only option we have left is a strike.”

Albertsons said in a statement Thursday evening, “We are disappointed that union leadership decided to take this step.... We don’t want a strike, and we hope to continue bargaining rather than continue to alarm our associates and our customers.”

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Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs, said, “Even though the union leadership has canceled the contract extension, our stores are open for business. Bargaining will continue over the next three days and we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”

Vons said it and the other employers “intend to remain focused on the negotiation process and urge the unions to do so the same.”

The labor negotiations, which have grown increasingly tense, have most recently focused on healthcare funding and how to pay for benefits, according to officials from both UFCW and the employers. Both sides have been meeting regularly since a recent strike-authorization vote by union members won strong support.

The labor contract that was approved in 2007 expired March 6. It had been extended day to day.

The contract covered an estimated 62,000 checkers, baggers, meat cutters and other grocery workers across the region, including those employed by Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati; Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons, which is owned by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

The contract also covered employees at other companies that are negotiating separate deals, which could be affected by the final results of this negotiation. The number of workers in Southern California that might walk off the job if a strike does happen in the coming days is about 54,200, according to data provided by Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons.

Thursday’s news harks back to 2003, the last time Southern California grocery workers and their employers faced a standoff over labor issues. The 141-day strike and lockout that began that fall left many union members with staggering debts. It reportedly cost the employers an estimated $2 billion and gave competitors an opportunity to step into the gap.

Now, as in 2003, one key sticking point is healthcare. What’s at issue is a painfully common refrain in corporate America: medical costs are rising.

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Under the latest offer from the employers, grocery workers would pay $9 a week for individual coverage and $23 a week for a family, company and union officials said.

The grocers say these premiums are necessary to help offset rising healthcare costs and augment the amount Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons are agreeing to pay into a trust fund that purchases healthcare for workers. But union officials say that what the employers have proposed to pay during negotiations on the complex deal is far short of what is necessary and would ultimately gut the trust fund. Instead, union officials say, the employers need to pay more in order for the fund to be viable long term.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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