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Grocery workers give notice to cancel labor contract [Updated]

September 15, 2011 |  7:47 pm

Protesters

In a bid to speed up negotiations that have dragged on for more than eight months, union officials representing supermarket workers in Southern California took one step closer Thursday night to going on strike.

Their move: Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers gave a 72-hour notice to cancel their labor contract extension with the region’s three leading grocery chains -- a mandatory final step before a walkout. Once the contract is no longer in effect, grocery workers can strike at any time.

Although the union is obligated to give the companies 72 hours' notice, the action does not guarantee workers will walk off the job Sunday. 

Albertsons said in a statement: “We are disappointed that union leadership decided to take this step. We are still in active negotiations.... We don’t want a strike, and we hope to continue bargaining rather than continue to alarm our associates and our customers.”

Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs, said: “Even though the union leadership has cancelled the contract extension, our stores are open for business. Bargaining will continue over the next three days and we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”

[Updated Sept. 15, 9:15 p.m.: Vons said it and the other employers “intend to remain focused on the negotiation process and urge the unions to do so the same.”]

In a statement, Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said: “We returned to the bargaining table ready to compromise and make a deal that keeps our employers profitable but protects the jobs of our members. Instead, we got more of the same stonewalling from the supermarket corporations.…We don’t want to strike, but if they won’t negotiate, we have no choice.”

The labor negotiations, which have grown increasingly tense in recent weeks, stalled amid deep divisions over healthcare funding, worker scheduling and future staffing levels.

Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers and negotiators for Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons have been meeting steadily since a recent strike-authorization vote by union members won strong support.

The labor contract approved in 2007 expired March 6. It had been extended day to day, until Thursday evening.

The canceled contract covered an estimated 62,000 checkers, baggers, meat cutters and other grocery workers across the region, including those employed by Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati; Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons, which is owned by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

The contract also covered employees at other companies that are negotiating separate deals. So the number of workers in Southern California that might walk off the job if a strike does happen in the coming days is about 54,200, according to data provided by Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons.

Thursday’s news harks back to 2003, the last time Southern California grocery workers and their employers faced a standoff over labor issues. The 141-day strike and lockout that began that fall left many union members with staggering debts. It reportedly cost the employers an estimated $2 billion and gave competitors an opportunity to step into the gap.

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-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: NAACP members participating in the NAACP's 102nd annual national convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center this summer join a labor march and a rally in front of a Ralphs grocery store in Los Angeles. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs, said, “Even though the union leadership has cancelled the contract extension, our stores are open for business. Bargaining will continue over the next three days and we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”

Officials from Vons could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

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