Ralphs, Albertsons say they'll shut down if workers strike

Mercer 21175

Shereen Meraji/KPCC

Grocery workers assemble picket signs at the Local 770 headquarters in Los Angeles ahead of a possible strike.

After eight months of negotiations, grocery workers at Southern California's three biggest chains on Thursday night issued a 72-hour notice canceling its contract extension and "paving the way for a strike" according to a statement. In response a Ralphs spokesperson on Friday said the store would shut down, at least initially, if a strike happens. And Albertsons quickly followed suit.

"If there is a strike, Ralphs will initially close all of our stores. During a strike, it is difficult to create a good shopping experience for our customers and a good working environment for our employees," a spokeswoman said in a statement. Albertsons told the L.A. Timesthe closure would affect about 100 of its stores. Vons said it didn't plan to shutter any stores if there's a strike.

A strike isn't guaranteed, but canceling the contract removes the final barrier to a strike. The union says contract negotiations are stalled because supermarkets are unwilling to compromise on health care contributions for 62,000 grocery workers.

"Workers demand to have a decent job and decent benefits," said John Grant, secretary treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 770. "It was a very difficult decision, but after eight months of bargaining with no progress at the table, we had no choice."

The union says the employers have not increased contributions toward health care coverage over the past eight years and now want the chains to pay a greater share of the workers' ever-increasing health care expenses. The grocers see it differently; a spokeswoman for Ralphs says her company currently pays more than 90 percent of health coverage costs and that employees hired after 2004 pay only $15 a week for family coverage. The health care expenses are paid through a fund controlled by a board of trustees made up of representatives from the union and grocery chains.

But "the company still hasn’t provided enough money such that the fund that pays the benefits for the grocery workers will go bankrupt in 16 months. That’s unacceptable," Grant said.

"We’re not the aggressors, believe me," said Rick Icaza, president of the grocery workers union Local 770. "It’s the employers. The companies are making big money. And labor’s being attacked all over the nation. So we’re gonna fight for labor, not just for grocery workers."

UFCW members and the same three grocery chains were in a similar dispute eight years ago that kept picket lines outside Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons stores for 20 weeks. The lockout cost the three chains an estimated $2 billion.

“We returned to the bargaining table ready to compromise and make a deal that keeps our employers profitable but protects the jobs of our members,” said Icaza in a written statement. “They are unwilling to compromise and are more concerned about hoarding their billions in profits than reaching a fair deal for their employees. We don’t want to strike, but if they won’t negotiate, we have no choice.”

A Vons spokesman said in a countering statement that the store is "disappointed" and said the 72-hour notice "needlessly alarms our employees and our customers. The notice does not mean a strike is imminent or that a strike will necessarily occur at any point."

Albertsons and Ralphs had similar messages.

"We don’t want a strike, and we hope to continue bargaining rather than continue to alarm our associates and our customers," Albertsons said in a statement.

Tom Hancock, a 30-year veteran of L.A.'s grocery stores, talked to KPCC earlier this week about the last grocery strike. These days he’s a clerk at a Pavilions in Hollywood, which is owned by Safeway, the corporate parent of Vons.

"I’ve been through it before, it was horrible," he said. "It’s gonna be tougher, but it’s gotta be done."

Inside the Vons supermarket on Virgil and Sunset in Los Feliz, there’s was sign of a looming strike on Friday. Checkers were calm and helpful and customers are making the usual small talk.

But a few miles away at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union headquarters, off-duty baggers, checkers and bakery clerks assemble picket signs. The signs are stacked against the wall by the hundreds. They read: "EMPLOYEES LOCKED OUT, PLEASE RESPECT OUR PICKET LINE."

Eric Garcetti, president of the Los Angeles City Council and a candidate for mayor, took to Twitter to voice his support for a fair contract for the workers within the 72-hour period.

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