Saying little progress has been made in contract talks with supermarket chains, Southern California grocery workers’ union leaders have set a deadline of Sept. 9: On that day, workers will start voting on whether to ratify — or reject — the companies’ latest contract offer.
The deadline was set after four days of talks that concluded Sunday with no agreement reached. A new round of negotiations is scheduled to start Sept. 4 and go through Sept. 8, but United Food and Commercial Workers union locals decided late Sunday that it was time to hold a vote by their members on a specific contract proposal.
Some 46,000 unionized employees of Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores from north of Santa Maria to the U.S.-Mexico border are still working under a three-year contract that expired March 3.
In late June, thousands of grocery workers across Southern California and parts of Central California voted to authorize their union leadership to call a strike if contract talks with the supermarket chains don’t yield a satisfactory agreement.
“Our goal is to negotiate a contract, not a strike, and hopefully we can come to a conclusion but this is in the supermarkets’ hands,” Todd Walters, president of San Diego County’s UFCW Local 135, said Monday. “The unions are very frustrated with the games the companies are playing by making us wait all day on Sunday and then doing nothing until 5 p.m.”
Ralphs countered that it remains committed to continued negotiations for a “fair and balanced contract.”
“I can’t predict the future, but this decision creates unnecessary fear and stress for our associates,” Ralphs spokesman John Votava said of the union’s Sept. 9 deadline.
Neither the supermarket chains nor the labor union has divulged the substance of the latest proposals. In a statement Monday, Ralphs said the cost of each additional nickel increase above the current pay raise proposal equates to $3.6 million “that is invested into Ralphs’ more than 17,000 hourly associates over the next three years.”
Ralphs has 190 stores in Southern and Central California affected by the current contract talks. Albertsons Cos. operates 342 affected stores under the Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions brands.
Although the UFCW locals have already taken a strike authorization vote, another one would probably be necessary should union members reject a contract offer next month, Walters said. Given that there have been substantial changes since the grocery chains’ previous offer, which was made before the June strike vote, another such vote would need to be taken, Walters explained.
Southern California’s last grocery strike was in 2003, when nearly 60,000 workers walked off their jobs for four months. That was the largest and longest supermarket strike in U.S. history. In 2011 the union came close to striking after it set a deadline similar to the one it announced this week, but after marathon negotiations, the supermarket chains and union leaders reached a deal.