After roughly two months of stalled negotiations, thousands of Southern California grocery workers overwhelmingly voted to authorize their union to call a strike against major supermarket chains.
The strike-authorization vote, taken over five days, could lead to walkouts at Albertsons, Pavilions, Ralphs, and Vons markets extending from Central California to the Mexican border, the United Food and Commercial Workers announced Saturday. A walkout could involve grocery clerks, pharmacist technicians, and meat cutters, a union representative said.
The UFCW said that 95 percent of those voting at seven local unions cast their ballots in favor of a walkout.
A strike has not been set as the union will resume negotiations on Wednesday. However, if bargaining comes to a halt again, the union will decide what steps to take next.
A three-year contract covering 47,000 workers at 540 stores expired on March 6. The UFCW began negotiating with the grocery chains in January for wage increases, higher minimum hours for part-time employees, improved medical benefits, and store-level health and safety committees to handle ongoing pandemic concerns.
John Grant, president of the UFCW Local 770, headquartered in Los Angeles, said a strike is always a last resort, but the union is prepared to do so if an agreement isn’t reached soon.
“We don’t want to strike. No one wants that anxiety or disruption,” Grant told Los Angeles.
“We want to do our work. We want to get on with our lives, but at some point you have to say, ‘That’s enough. I am a member of this community. I’m standing up. I demand respect and dignity, and if you won’t give it to me at the table, then I’ll get it in the streets.’”
Grant added that the union hopes to come to an agreement by April 5. “We have no inclination or intention at this point of negotiating past that [date],” he said. “I’m not sure if we’ll even last that long, but I’m told that they’re coming back a little bit more earnestly.”
Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger, has begun hiring temporary employees to prepare for potential walkouts, the Los Angeles Times reports. In a statement, the company said its stores will remain open despite the vote. “No one wins in a strike—not our associates, not our company, not our communities and not the union,” it said.
Representatives for Ralphs, which has 184 stores and 18,000 employees in Southern California, also called the union’s strike authorization vote “unrelated to Ralphs’ labor negotiations”’ and said it will not derail the company from resuming bargaining for a new contract, City News Service reports.
Albertsons has a similar sentiment.
“The outcome of the strike authorization vote does not change anything related to this process,” Albertsons said in a statement, according to the Times. “We remain committed to negotiating a contract that is fair to all parties.”
The UFCW has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the companies “following documented actions that undermine workers’ rights and the bargaining process,” the union said in a statement. The charges include unlawful intimidation, harassment, and surveillance of workers.
“The companies are not playing fair by violating our rights and federal labor laws,” Rachel Fournier, a bargaining committee member and Ralphs cashier, said in a statement. “After all the hard work we’ve done through the Covid pandemic serving customers so they can feed their families we deserve to be able to feed ours.”
She added, “While Kroger made over $4 billion in profits last year, many employees are struggling to make ends meet. This has to change. It is time for the grocery corporations to do better and come back to the bargaining table with an adequate contract proposal that respects our work.”
After two years of working on the front lines amid the ongoing pandemic, many grocers—who watched some of their coworkers fall ill or even die from the virus—feel disrespected by employers who have yet to come to an agreement with union leaders. The UFCW Local 770, which represents nearly 20,000 employees based in Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura, has been keeping track of the amount of positive COVID cases its members have reported since the beginning of the pandemic. As of Monday, there had been 10,284 cases, according to their website.
Grant, who has led the UFCW Local 770 for six years, said the pandemic has been “horrific” for grocers who experienced high physical and mental pressures from their employers and customers.
“Grocery stores were like the community center” during the height of the pandemic, Grant told Los Angeles. “[They] were the life line that kept people alive. Amidst the uncertainty, the hysteria, the sort of invisible lethal threat that was hanging over everybody’s head, yet they came to work every day [and] worked long hours out of responsibility to the community. They did not sign up to be healthcare workers, but that’s what they ended up being.”
He added, “What I’ve found anecdotally, in focus groups, and from polling, [is that] the community supports grocery workers. They realize the role that they played and the companies need to realize that because without customers, it doesn’t matter how pretty their shelves look.”
The UFCW is asking for a $5-per-hour wage bump over the three-year contract, more hours and staffing, and bolstered safety and health standards.
The grocery chains have offered annual 60-cent-per-hour wage increases over the next three years, totaling $1.80, City News Service reports.
In 2003 and 2004, SoCal grocers walked off the job over a contract dispute, and the strike lasted 141 days, City News Service reports. Some analysts estimate that the walkout cost supermarket chains roughly $2 billion, with the workers losing $300 million in wages.
During the last round of negotiations in 2019, grocers voted to authorize a strike but negotiations continued for two months, and a labor deal was eventually reached, averting a strike, according to City News Service.
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