LOS ANGELES — Negotiators in the Southern California contract talks were scheduled to resume bargaining today following a break in discussions called last Tuesday by a federal mediator.
Commenting on the break, representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers union here said the sessions, which started in January, have lasted longer than the 141-day strike-lockout that ended three years ago.
To demonstrate its commitment to getting some sort of settlement, the union held a media event last Thursday at which they assembled picket signs and stocked food banks as a prelude to a possible strike or lockout.
“We do not want to strike, but management's stalling has left us little choice,” Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, said, “and if we are forced to strike, then we'll be ready.”
Adina Tessler, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons, said the employers “have a significant commitment to negotiate a new contract. Since 2004, we've negotiated hundreds of contracts with these companies without a work stoppage, and we believe we do the same here.”
The union's contract with the three employers expired March 5, although negotiations started in January. Workers at Albertsons voted in mid-March to give negotiators strike authorization, and workers at Ralphs and Vons followed suit late last month.
In a related development, a local labor alliance and a documentary filmmaker unveiled a new video campaign last week designed to drum up public support for the plight of union members and criticizing the three chains for not paying adequate wages or health care benefits.
The campaign, sponsored by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, involves videos being assembled by Richard Greenwald and Brave New Films, the same team that created a 2004 documentary criticizing business practices at Wal-Mart Stores.
Available at www.SupermarketSwindle.com, the initial segment features workers from Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons talking about the problems they face in paying for health care and the difficulties of working without any wage increases since 2002 — situations the filmmakers compare with the salary boosts and various perquisites of the chief executive officers of Supervalu, Kroger Co. and Safeway, whom they call the “Gang of 3.”
The website asks the public to sign a pledge promising not to shop at any of the three chains if there is a work stoppage.
Tessler told SN last week, “The videos say the same thing the union has been saying in handbills, and we don't believe the timing of the campaign is coincidental.
“But we don't believe it will have any impact on negotiations or on our commitment to negotiate an agreement that's fair to employees and good for the companies.”
Speaking during a conference call with reporters last week, Elliott Petty, a community organizer with LAANE, said his group battled successfully to keep Wal-Mart from opening a supercenter in Inglewood, Calif., several years ago “to preserve good jobs in the supermarket industry. So it's a tragedy now to have the leading chains abandoning their commitment to workers and the communities that depend on their services.
“We can't allow the industry to move to the Wal-Mart model, and if we cannot get a just settlement [in the negotiations], then we will try to get consumers to take their business elsewhere.”
Filmmaker Greenwald said he got involved with the project “because I have a basic concern for fairness, and telling stories in human terms is what we do.
“Corporate greed is taking a terrible toll, and we see clear parallels with Wal-Mart in the way these companies are treating employees, which is why we've developed this campaign with LAANE as an opening step to convince the Gang of 3 that fairness and equity for their workers are values they should aspire to.”
In the conference call Christopher Sprinkle, a researcher on the video project, cited the example of a Ralphs employee who developed a serious eye infection that threatened his sight, “yet after eight months on the job he didn't qualify for health care benefits and put off going to the doctor till his eye was swollen shut.”
The $8,000 in medical expenses the worker incurred forced him to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy “despite having a good job. It's stories like that that made us want to [work on the project] to help create public debate.”