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Grocery labor fight heats up, stores start hiring potential strike breakers

Albertsons store 
Will Southern Californians face another grocery store strike? Depending on what happens in the next few days, the answer could be yes.

Labor negotiations are dragging into the sixth month between the United Food and Commercial Workers and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons. Both sides, which are meeting this week, are trying to hammer out a complete contract offer to present to workers. Healthcare benefits remain a divisive issue. So are wages and staffing levels.

At best, according to sources on both sides, the talks are going slowly. At worst, they say, the tone has devolved from hope to frustration.

Now both sides are taking their fight public. On Wednesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson joined grocery workers protesting outside a Ralphs location in Los Angeles and met with local executives to discuss the contract negotiations.

On Friday and Saturday, an estimated 62,000 grocery workers in Southern California will vote -- for the second time -- on whether to give their union locals the go-ahead to strike.

In April, UFCW officials said their members had “overwhelmingly” voted to authorize union leaders to call a strike if they couldn’t reach a contract.

However, the contract negotiations so far have changed the healthcare and pension offerings enough that another vote is required, said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles.

The union said the chains want employees to pay more for premiums, deductibles and co-pays. The new payments could be as high as 50% of some workers' take-home pay, the union said. The union's contract expired in March and members have authorized a strike. Negotiations are being conducted under the supervision of a federal mediator.

“There isn’t even a complete offer for us to vote on,” Icaza said Wednesday. “What’s on the table is unacceptable. The fact that there’s not even a complete proposal to vote on is even more unacceptable.”

Jesse Jackson The second strike vote also will be a way for labor to gauge the current mood of its members, as California’s economy has deteriorated since the first strike vote was taken, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of New York-based Strategic Resource Group.

“It also comes as Target has converted virtually all of their stores in the area to carry groceries,” Flickinger said. The strike vote this weekend “may not guarantee people are going to walk out, but the odds become highly likely that they will.”

The retailers are fighting back. This week, Albertsons and Vons began taking applications for people willing to cross a picket line and work during a strike.

On Wednesday, customers walking through the front door of the Albertsons store at West 39th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles were greeted with a sign offering $10- to $13-an-hour jobs “for temporary replacement associates due to a potential labor dispute at our store.”

Ralphs is not hiring replacement workers at this point and remains “confident in the contingency plans it has in place in the event the unions call a strike,” according to Kendra Doyel, Ralphs spokeswoman. She declined to discuss details about those plans.

Vons and Pavilions are owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., and Albertsons by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Officials from Vons and Albertsons could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo, top: Customers walk past a sign posted at the entrance to an Albertsons grocery store in Los Angeles that solicits applications from people willing to work at the market if a labor strike should happen. Photo, middle: The Rev. Jessie Jackson joined Southern California grocery workers and supporters at a Ralphs grocery store in Los Angeles to support union efforts to fight potential healthcare hikes by the region's three major unionized grocery store chains. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

 
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