Southern California grocery strike: Pension agreement reached, but sides divided on health care

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Brian Watt/KPCC

Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and Rick Icaza of United Food and Commercial Workers, speak at a gathering of labor leaders on June 8, 2011 to rally in advance of a possible strike by grocery workers.

Three major Southern California supermarkets say they've reached a tentative agreement on the pension portion of the labor agreement being negotiated with thousands of unionized grocery store workers.

Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons said in a joint statement late Friday that the companies and the United Food and Commercial Workers have agreed on the employers' contributions to pension benefits.

There was no mention of any progress on the issue of employee contributions to health care costs, the major sticking point in the negotiations.

Local 770 President Rick Icaza says the union "compromised" on the pension but added that the two sides remain far apart on the issue of employee contributions to health care costs, the major sticking point in the negotiations.

The contract between United Food and Commercial Workers and the stores expired in March. Members already voted to authorize a strike.

On Tuesday, the stores called talk of a strike unnecessary, since talks continue.

Both sides are working to avoid a repeat of the 2003 lockout, which affected Albertsons, Ralphs/Food For Less, and the Vons/Pavilions chains. The lockout was implemented by the stores after the workers had authorized a strike.

Picket lines altered shopping availability for millions of Southern California customers for more than a month, and resulted in tumultuous staff turnovers and rough economic times for the locked-out workers.

The companies today put a rosy glow on the agreement on pension issues.

"We are pleased to have reached an agreement on this important part of the new labor agreement," a statement from the companies said. "While we still have more work to do on other important parts of the
contract, it is noteworthy we have been able to reach an agreement on the very challenging issue of pension benefits and the employers' contributions which fund those benefits," the corporations said in a joint statement.

The union's Icaza said the current contract offer is "an unfair shifting of costs by hugely profitable corporations, companies that made more than $5 billion in profits and paid more than $500 million to Wall Street and investors.''

"We compromised on the pension issue,'' Icaza said today. "Now is the time for management to compromise on health care."

This story has been updated

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