War of Words Continues in California Labor Dispute

LOS ANGELES — As negotiators hash out the sticky issue of health care coverage, the war of words continued in the contract talks between the three largest Southern California supermarket operators and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. In a joint statement, the three chains Supervalu-owned Albertsons, Kroger-owned Ralphs and Safeway-owned Vons said the union has dragged its feet on resolving

LOS ANGELES — As negotiators hash out the sticky issue of health care coverage, the war of words continued in the contract talks between the three largest Southern California supermarket operators and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

In a joint statement, the three chains — Supervalu [4]-owned Albertsons, Kroger [5]-owned Ralphs and Safeway [6]-owned Vons — said the union has dragged its feet on resolving the health care issue, taking 42 days to respond to the employers' initial proposal.

The seven UFCW locals involved in the talks said in their own joint statement that the management proposal “was a response to a union proposal made 47 days before that. If management is truly concerned about timeliness of proposals, we challenge them to meet with us every single day going forward until an agreement is reached.”

Talks are scheduled for a total of five days spread over this week and next, union leaders told SN last week.

Neither a strike by the union nor a lockout by the employers appeared likely in the immediate short term, they said. “The federal mediator is doing an exceptional job keeping us at the table,” one union executive explained.

Union negotiators have already received strike authorization from the membership; however, the union has promised to bring back a management offer for their consideration before any strike is called, the executive told SN.

The UFCW's contracts, covering 62,000 workers, expired March 6 and have been extended on a day-to-day basis since March 31, subject to a 72-hour cancellation notice by either side. The union voted in mid-April to authorize a strike; a federal mediator joined the talks in May.

The union leader characterized the talks as calm, “with only a couple of instances when someone lost his temper. But at this point, neither side is willing to make the first steps necessary to try to come to a reasonable conclusion.”

The two sides have already reached agreement on the employers' pension contribution but remain far apart on health care coverage, the executive said.

The employers said their initial proposal provided for employee contributions of $9 a week for single coverage and $23 a week for family coverage, compared with a national average of $76 weekly for family coverage.

Under the former contract employees hired before March 2004 paid no weekly contributions for health care, while those hired after that date paid $7 a week for single coverage and $15 a week for family coverage.

The union said full-time employees pay more than $600 a month for medical benefits, “[and] management's proposal would increase this amount while drastically decreasing benefits. Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons pay less today for employees' health care than they did 10 years ago, [with] literally all increases borne solely by workers.”

In other developments last week:

  • • Albertsons confirmed it had turned down an offer from the UFCW to drop out of the negotiations and sign a “me-too” agreement — similar to the one Stater Bros. Markets and Gelson's Markets have agreed to sign once the major chains negotiate a new master agreement.

    According to the union executive, “If there is a strike and Albertsons is the target, it could put them out of business. And if there is a strike and Albertsons locks our members out, they could put themselves out of business.

    “We would hate for that to happen. So we offered them an alternative.”

    An Albertsons spokesman told SN, “We do not enter into ‘me-too’ agreements anywhere in our company. The issues at stake are too important to us, and we did not feel it was in our company's best interests to enter into a contract agreement that we would have no input on.

    “Instead, we're at the bargaining table, working hard to reach a fair agreement.”

  • • The Service Employees International Union joined the UFCW in applying pressure to the chains — sending pickets to march outside a Ralphs store to show support for the UFCW should a strike-lockout occur.

  • • UFCW staged demonstrations at the local offices of the three chains, in concert with community leaders and members of the clergy.

During rallies at the Albertsons headquarters in Fullerton, Calif., and the Vons offices in Arcadia, Calif., a group called Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice — CLUE California — submitted a letter signed by 24 clergymen of varying faiths to the chains' top executives asking for “a fair and equitable settlement” that avoids a strike.

“We are aware … workers have already voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike, but we ask that you avoid this strike from being necessary by engaging in honest and just negotiations. As the religious community, we stand in solidarity with workers and will respect the choices they make.”

The letter cited Christian, Jewish and Muslim writings as the basis for asking for “just treatment of workers.”

Because the Ralphs offices are located in an industrial section in Compton, Calif., that does not accommodate large numbers of automobiles, the UFCW did not hold a rally there nor submit the letter to the chain's executives. Instead, UFCW members held up banners that could be read from the adjacent freeway.