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Working In These Times

Friday, Jun 10, 2011, 11:19 am

LA Unions Rally to Support Grocery Workers, as Strike Looms

BY Taylor Long

UFCW Local 770 workers and supporters gather for a rally on March 26, 2011, in Los Angeles.   (Photo via UFCW Local 770)

Grocery store workers in southern California are preparing to rally on Tuesday for affordable healthcare benefits, as negotiations with three major supermarket chains drag on and the possibility of a strike increases.

Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons supermarkets and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 have been negotiating through a federal mediator since March, when the union’s contract expired. Now, fearing an increase in healthcare premiums, co-pays and deductibles, the union is mustering the support of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in preparation for a strike, the Los Angeles Times reported this week.

The federation announced its support of Local 770 Wednesday, pledging more than $100,000 to sustain more than 62,000 union workers and their families in the event of strike, Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the federation, said.

“We pledge $100,000 to start the Grocery Workers’ Hardship Fund should these workers be forced to strike,” she said. “This fund will grow as needed. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to support these grocery workers.” 

The federation has also drummed up the support of other local unions, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. A representative of the union told the Los Angeles Times, “we're going to open our hearts, our union halls and our pockets to these workers.” 

Local 770 organizers could not be reached for comment on the likelihood of a strike, but Rick Icaza, president of the union, told the Times, “we’re so far apart, if something doesn’t happen soon we’ll have to strike.” Members of the union voted to authorize a strike in April. 

According to Local 770, which regularly posts contract negotiation updates on their website, as of May 19, the healthcare proposal offered by the supermarkets would cost employees $450 million over the course of three years:

Their plan would shift an estimated 80 percent of future cost increases to you by increasing premiums, cutting benefits, and limiting your access to certain benefits. These changes will increase the cost of your health care to unaffordable levels.

Essentially, your management has refused to compromise on providing health benefits, instead creating a plan that mirrors that of corporate healthcare villain WalMart: so expensive and ineffective that most employees choose not to participate.

The amount of costs they are trying to shift to you, over three years, is equivalent to 3 percent of their total $15 billion profits. Despite the fact that it would only cost them 3 percent of their total profit to maintain your and your family’s health care, they would rather risk a strike and abuse their employees to marginally increase their already considerable profits.

Victoria Rangle, a spokesperson from Albertsons, which is owned by SuperValu, Inc., disputed that the company's healthcare proposal would cost some workers $7,500 annually, as the county labor federation claims on its website. In negotiations, Rangle said individual workers were asked to contribute $9 a week, $15 a week for workers and their children or $23 a week for family coverage. 

“We are still actively negotiating, and any talk of a strike is unnecessary,” Rangle told In These Times. “Our contract extension agreement is still in place, and we have additional negotiating meeting dates on the calendar. The only place where we can reach an agreement is at the bargaining table, and we believe our focus should be there, reaching a fair and reasonable contract.”

If a strike does start soon, it wouldn't be without precedent. In 2003, when Local 770 was negotiating a contract with the same supermarkets, workers went on strike. The federation of labor claims to have cost the supermarkets more than $2 billion in sales. It's unclear how a strike this year might impact customers or company sales.

Taylor Long is a summer 2011 in These Times Web intern.

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