Clerks authorized a strike as soon as midnight against Southern California's three main grocery chains, but management and union officials will huddle with a federal mediator Friday to try to avert a walkout.
Will you cross picket lines to do your grocery shopping? Yes, I don't know where else to shop.No, I will go where there are no picket lines.I don't know.
Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, representing an estimated 70,000 employees throughout the Southland and beyond, said the clerks voted overwhelmingly to authorize a walkout that could affect Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons stores.
Connie Leyva, president of UFCW Local 1428, said that only one of the three chains would be targeted.
"We will be meeting with the federal mediator today, and depending on the outcome of that, we will determine the target chain," Leyva said. "We will be targeting one chain. We're targeting one chain because we are asking the other chains not to lock out their employees, so that they will still be able to go to work, and the customers will have a place to shop."
"Health care is the biggest issue," she said. "The increases that our members would be asked to pay out of their pockets, the caps on benefits ... would make our members be forced to choose between putting food on the table OR taking their child to the doctor."
Leyva said management wants to cut health benefits in half.
"We can't ask our members to live with that, and they voted unequivocally yesterday that they won't live with that," said Leyva, whose local represents workers in the San Gabriel Valley and the western Inland Empire.
In response to a question, Leyva said, "We will absolutely give the federal mediator a chance. We will do everything we can to avoid a strike. But if we can't come to some common ground, it may be unavoidable."
UCFW members have not struck since 1978.
A representative with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent agency created in 1947, will run this afternoon's session.
It is intended "to avoid a work stoppage, resolve outstanding issues and achieve collective bargaining agreements," said FMCS Regional Director Barbara J. Wood.
Some of the main issues are wages, whether "new hires" would work for less than other employees under a "two-tier" system, and whether employees will have to take on more of the financial burden of health care costs.
About 70 percent of the supermarket workforce consists of part-time workers.
The companies are also demanding that employees pay $1,300 a year toward health premiums, as well as bigger deductibles and higher copayments for doctor visits and prescription drugs, said UCFW official Ellen Anreder.
Health care cuts, including elimination of dental, vision and well-baby plans, appear to be the sticking point with many workers, who now get free medical care.
Representatives of Safeway Inc., the parent of Vons and Pavilions, and Kroger Co., parent of Ralphs, along with Albertsons Inc. executives say employers are under pressure to reduce costs to compete with Wal-Mart and other "supercenters."
Management executives have vowed to keep their stores open during a strike by using replacement workers. Replacement workers at Vons are already undergoing training but will not be deployed unless there is a strike, the company's Sandra Calderon said.
A work stoppage involving the seven union locals would affect some of 859 supermarkets from the Mexican border to Bishop, and east to the Nevada and Arizona borders, according to the union.
The last supermarket strike in the region lasted five days.
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