SoCal grocers allow strike during negotiations

Battered by two years of pandemic stress, tens of thousands of Southern California grocers have voted to authorize a strike if supermarkets do not meet their wage demands as negotiations for a new contract resume in the coming weeks .

The vote, which took place over five days, could lead to walkouts from select Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs markets stretching from central California to the Mexican border.

The United Food and Commercial Workers announced that their seven local unions had voted “overwhelmingly” in favor of authorizing a strike, but delayed releasing the full vote breakdown, citing a problem in its electronic voting system.

A spokeswoman for Los Angeles Local 770, which includes 18,000 grocers, said 94.3% of voters favored the strike.

A three-year contract covering 47,000 workers in 540 stores expired on March 6. Negotiations on a new deal began in January but stalled three weeks ago. Workers are seeking substantial wage increases, higher minimum hours for part-time workers and store-level health and safety committees as pandemic concerns persist.

“These companies can either come to the table ready to negotiate a fair deal, or we will have to take this fight elsewhere,” said Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles and chief negotiator.

Negotiations are due to resume on Wednesday.

Rachel Fournier, a member of the UFCW Local 770 bargaining committee, stands at the union’s headquarters in Los Angeles as members wave for strike Monday.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The vote, which allows union leaders to call a strike if a pact cannot be reached, is mounting pressure on two of the nation’s largest grocery chains: Kroger, the parent company of Ralphs, and Albertsons, which owns Vons and Pavilions.

The confrontation comes at a time of social unrest across the country. Grocery workers, aware of their pandemic-related “essential” status, dug in, not just in California, but in Oregon, Colorado and other states.

Employees at other big companies, including Amazon and Starbucks, are seeking to unionize. And labor shortages are plaguing industries across the country as employees change jobs for higher pay. Inflation reaches record levels in California and the United States

Unlike the nearly five-month grocery store strike in Southern California in 2003 and 2004, in which the entire union workforce quit after chains pushed to cut wages and benefits, this month’s clearance is being touted as an “unfair labor practice” action. Under federal law, this allows for walkouts at some stores instead of a full-fledged strike.

The union filed complaints this month with the National Labor Relations Board that supermarkets sought to intimidate and unlawfully influence workers – allegations the companies deny.

The plight of grocery store workers has built over time as their wages have not kept up with the high cost of living in Southern California and companies have moved more than two-thirds of their workforce working towards part-time status.

In the Los Angeles area, a living wage — defined as the minimum income that allows a worker to meet basic needs — ranged from $19.22 for a single person without children to $34.01 for families with two working adults and three children in 2020, according to the latest data in a living wage calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The UFCW is calling for the highest-paid, long-time workers — food clerks who include cashiers and storekeepers — to get a $5-an-hour raise by the end of a new three-year contract. They currently earn $22.50 an hour after five to seven years. The companies offered a raise of $1.80.

A third of the workforce belongs to the category of food clerks.

Another third of grocery store workers — general merchandise clerks, including deli food preparers and non-food storekeepers — now earn a maximum of $17.02 an hour. The union would increase that amount by $8 an hour over three years, saying they perform work similar to higher-paid food clerks. The companies offered $2.

Negotiations have yet to begin on the lowest-paid third of the workforce — baggers and employee helpers who earn slightly more than the state’s $15 minimum wage.

Kroger and Albertson’s offer medical and retirement benefits unlike many non-union retailers. UFCW wage proposals ‘would lead to $400 more in monthly grocery bills for most Southern California households [and] push customers into non-union competitors who don’t respect collective bargaining,” said John Votava, director of general affairs at Ralph.

Unorganized marketplaces such as Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are fierce competitors. And non-union retailers such as Walmart and Target have expanded their grocery businesses in recent years.

Supermarkets traditionally operate with slim profit margins of around 2%. But the pandemic inflated incomes as restaurants closed and more people ate at home. Kroger’s operating profit nearly doubled to $4.3 billion from 2019 to 2021.

In 2020, the company paid out $1.3 billion to investors — money that workers said should have been used to pay them more as they faced COVID-19 risks at work. Kroger chief executive Rodney McMullen has been slammed for taking a $22.4 million salary package in 2020 – his largest ever – even as the company ended a $2 hazard pay $ per hour for frontline workers after two months.

A pair of hands frame posters in support of a strike vote for grocery store workers in Southern California.

A strike would affect tens of thousands of workers at 540 grocery stores stretching from central California to the border with Mexico.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

When the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach passed ordinances last year requiring chains to offer several months of hazard pay, Ralphs closed five markets saying they were “financially unsustainable”.

“Grocery store workers are essential,” said John Grant, President of Local 770. “They are not easily replaceable given the labor shortage. We don’t want any further disruption. but we are ready to strike.

At the Los Angeles headquarters of UFCW Local 770 this week, two dozen grocery store workers hammered wooden batons at signs that read “STRIKE,” “HUELGA” and “PLEASE RESPECT OUR PICKET LINE.” in red, black and white letters.

Among them was Rachel Fournier, a 34-year-old cashier who worked for 17 years at a Los Angeles Ralphs. His hourly wage is now $22.50, the company maximum. Despite repeated requests, she was never able to obtain full-time status.

“Working 28 hours a week doesn’t pay the rent,” she said. “It’s not going to put food in your children’s bellies.”

Full-time workers get slightly better benefits and more vacation time, she said, so the company’s computer system flags workers whose hours are increasing “and they push you back to prevent you to qualify”.

Fournier’s husband is disabled after a car accident, and she took in her sister and a roommate as boarders to make ends meet. Yet, she says, she regularly runs out of money before her paycheck reaches her bank account.

“Twenty years ago it was middle-class work,” she said. “But the companies are rushing us and rushing us with meager wage increases over the last few contracts.”

In two years, 7,709 grocers in Local 770 have contracted COVID-19, according to data provided to the union by stores. The pandemic has created “a spirit that we need to defend ourselves,” Fournier said. “People are fed up and they can’t wait to get out.”

Marco Escalante, 46, was also at headquarters, piling up signs in preparation for a strike.

After 24 years at a Vons in Echo Park, Escalante earns $22.50 an hour from midnight to 8:30 a.m. unpacking pallets and stacking shelves. He would like to work full time but normally only gets 30 hours a week.

Adjusted for inflation, the company’s offer of 60 cents an hour more for each of the next three years amounts to a pay cut and “a slap in the face”, he said.

Escalante, who has a working wife and three children, was one of the leaders of the 2003-04 strike. “After almost five months, they broke us,” he recalls. “Every contract since then has been 20 cents here, 20 cents there. I made more money 15 years ago than I do now.

The pandemic has changed the trading dynamic, he said. “Our members got sick and took him home. Customers were having fits in stores. And the companies said you only had a limited number of sick days, so you had to come to work. They showed no empathy for our sacrifices.

Escalante sees growing pro-union sentiments among young workers. Allowing a strike, he said, shows companies: “We know they’ve made billions in profits and we’re not afraid to walk out. There is a big change coming.

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