LOS ANGELES (AP) — More than 60,000 Southern California grocery workers have cast their votes on whether to authorize a strike if contract talks with three of the nation’s largest supermarket chains break down.
Members of seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers from the Central Coast to the Mexican border were asked to vote on the authorization Wednesday. Results were expected to be released Thursday, said Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for Local 770.
A two-thirds majority vote was needed for passage.
“We don’t want a strike. All we want is a contract,” Shimpock said, explaining the vote could help force negotiations forward.
“There hasn’t been a major (grocery) contract negotiated in the western United States within the last 12 months without the union having to go to a strike vote,” he said.
Company negotiators have proposed reducing health care benefits, eliminating overtime for employees who work seven days in a row and doubling the distance some workers would have to drive to their jobs, Shimpock said.
The talks are with The Vons Cos. Inc.; Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.; and Albertsons, owned by Supervalu Inc.
The last contract expired on March 6, and employees continue working under its provisions on a day-to-day basis. However, the union contends that company negotiators have failed to provide a comprehensive proposal regarding pay and health benefits.
“Management’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, and instead play chicken with the well-being of their employees and employees’ families is wrong,” Local 770 President Rick Icaza said in a statement.
The companies said the strike-authorization vote is premature.
“Ralphs is committed to the negotiations process, and while we have difficult issues to work through, the best thing to do is work together on solutions and reach an agreement,” Ralphs spokeswoman Kendra M. Doyel said in a statement.
Albertsons spokesman Fred Muir said in a statement that any talk of a strike was premature and unnecessary while progress was being made at the bargaining table.
“Now is time for union leadership to renew its focus on negotiations,” he said.
Messages seeking comment from Vons were not immediately returned, but a Vons statement last week called the vote an unnecessary distraction and a waste of time and said slow progress was being made in talks.
Both sides declined to speculate on when or if a strike might take place or what impact it might have on consumers. The companies have hundreds of stores in Southern California but face intense competition from other chains, including specialty shops and superstores that offer limited food selections in bulk at discount
The previous contract was ratified in 2007 and took about seven months to negotiate. A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.
The current negotiations come in the midst of a struggling economy and a surge in efforts to reduce union bargaining rights and benefits.
Full-time grocery union workers currently earn less than $30,000 a year, and some who work 40 years will receive less than $8,000 a year in retirement pay, Shimpock said.
“Our people are paycheck-to-paycheck,” he said.
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