Grocery workers may strike

More than 60,000 Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons employees throughout Southern California have agreed to strike “if needed,” as contentious contract negotiations between the companies and their employees continue, union officials said Monday.

Health care benefits are the main sticking point between the two negotiating groups, with the grocery corporations proposing employees each pay about $7,500 annually toward health care coverage.

In some cases, that’s 40 percent to 50 percent of the workers’ average yearly pay, said Caroline O’Connor, a spokeswoman with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Last week, with the grocery workers’ contracts expiring in about three months, county union representatives pledged to deposit $100,000 into a hardship fund for employees who would be without an income if a strike hit, O’Connor said.

As in the 140-day grocery-store strike that swept Southern California in 2003 and 2004, another strike would include picketing in front of stores and possibly employee lockouts, said Paul Edwards, a United Food Commercial Workers’ Local Union 770 leader.

The strike would affect the SCV’s 16 Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons stores and about 1,200 local workers, Edwards said.

“We don’t want to strike, but we’re prepared if we have to,” he said.

Last Friday, the three stores announced they’d reached a tentative agreement over the pension portion of the workers’ contract.

“While we still have more work to do on other important parts of the contract, it is noteworthy we have been able to reach an agreement on the very challenging issue of pension benefits and the employers’ contributions which fund those benefits,” the companies said in a statement.

But Edwards said the unions remain determined to fight for their health care coverage.

“From a union perspective … (pensions) are a very small part of the big picture — we still have large concerns about getting the rest of this done,” he said.

For some local shoppers, the threat of a supermarket strike brings back memories of the 2003-04 strike.

“I felt bad for everybody involved: the workers, their families,” recalled Margaret Rummell, 62, of Santa Clarita, as she loaded groceries into her car in the Vons parking lot on Bouquet Canyon Road on Monday. “I’m hoping it doesn’t get to that point where it goes on for long stretches.”

Local resident Eric Williams, 42, said a strike would mean he couldn’t rely on the Vons located just down the street from his home.

“If I can’t come and buy something, that worries me,” he said.

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