Negotiations Stop Between Grocery Stores, Striking Clerks
Mediated negotiations between three supermarket chains and their striking unionized grocery clerks broke off on Sunday without significant advances on key disagreements over health care benefits and wages for new hires, the Los Angeles Times reports (Cleeland, Los Angeles Times, 12/9). The grocery clerks' strike, which involves 70,000 United Food and Commercial Workers members employed by 859 Albertsons, Kroger-owned Ralphs and Safeway-owned Vons grocery stores, began Oct. 11 after contract negotiations failed, in large part because of disputes over health benefits. The grocery store chains had asked employees to pay $5 per week for individual health coverage and $10 to $15 per week for family coverage. In addition, the companies proposed that employees pay as much as $75 for prescription drug coverage and that they no longer provide dental and vision care benefits. Before mediated negotiations began, the union opposed revisions to member health plans and sought a 50-cent-per-hour raise in the first year of the contract and a 45-cent-per-hour raise in the second and third years (California Healthline, 11/25).
Under a new proposal -- the details of which were released by the grocery store chains on Monday -- the companies would increase funding to a reserve for an employee health care plan and withdraw a requirement that workers take unpaid, two-hour lunch breaks during slow periods. The new plan does not include a 30-cent raise in the contract's third year, as was promised under the chains' proposal two months ago, and it includes a cap on the companies' contributions to the health plan. Such a cap would force the union to increase members' medical costs by raising deductibles or to reduce services, according to the Times. In addition, the supermarkets are still requesting that new hires receive substantially lower wages and more limited benefit packages that would cost the companies about 67% less than what they pay for current employees.
Rick Icaza, president of the UFCW Local 770, said the union had offered to accept some health care cuts, such as higher copayments for doctor visits or for prescription drugs. Icaza added that the union also had proposed implementing a longer wage progression for new hires so it would take workers several more years to attain the highest pay scale. He said, "[W]e made a significant proposal, and it wasn't good enough for them. It's apparent now this is going to go through Christmas" (Los Angeles Times, 12/9). However, the three chains "chided" the union for failing to present a "comprehensive settlement proposal" during six days of labor talks, the Ventura County Star reports.
Both the grocery chains and the union "appear to be digging in their heels for a considerably longer battle," according to Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, the Ventura County Star reports (McLain, Ventura County Star, 12/9). UFCW spokesperson Ellen Anreder said that winning the dispute is necessary, saying, "This is not a Southern California issue; this will have a direct impact on all grocery workers and all working families" (Torres, Contra Costa Times, 12/9). Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at University of California-Santa Barbara, said that the strike has begun to "transcend" itself because the notion of employer-paid benefits and the power of unions in the emerging service economy are at stake. "The national labor movement certainly sees this as a decisive event which will set the course for social policy in the U.S. for many years to come," Lichtenstein said, adding that a union win could force other employers to sustain benefits, while a loss could lead to concession bargaining (Los Angeles Times, 12/9).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.