Southern California Unionized Grocery Clerks, Mechanics Strike Over Health Benefits, Other Issues
About 70,000 United Food and Commercial Workers union members at more than 850 grocery stores in Southern California on Saturday went on strike after contract negotiations between the workers and store officials from Albertsons, Kroger's Ralphs and Pavilions and Safeway's Vons failed, largely because of disputes over health benefits, the AP/Colorado Springs Gazette reports. Because of the sluggish economy, rising health care costs and increased competition from nonunion competitors, such as Wal-Mart, the supermarkets have asked employees to pay $5 a week for individual health care coverage and $10 to $15 a week for family coverage (Marquez, AP/Colorado Springs Gazette, 10/12). In addition, the grocery stores have proposed that employees pay as much as $75 for prescription drug coverage and that their dental and vision care benefits be terminated (California Healthline, 10/10). The union opposes changes to their health plans and wants a 50-cent-an-hour raise the first year of the contract and 45-cent raises in each of the following two years (AP/Colorado Springs Gazette, 10/12). On Friday, the UFCW announced that 97.4% of its voting members rejected the grocery store chains' proposals and authorized a strike. A federal mediator had been working to resolve the differences between the two parties, but negotiations -- which lasted from Friday at 3 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. on Saturday -- failed. Union workers decided initially to strike against Vons because it had taken "the toughest stance in negotiations" and has the highest concentration of stores in Southern California, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports (Green, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/12). However, after the union announced its strike Saturday night, Albertson and Ralphs locked out employees Sunday morning (Green, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/13). Before the strike was called, the three chains said they would remain united if one of the companies were singled out and would lock out employees (Green, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/11). The grocery store chains, which control nearly 60% of the Southern California grocery market, began training temporary workers as early as two weeks before negotiations broke down and hired replacements after the strike began (AP/Colorado Springs Gazette, 10/12).
Terry O'Neill, a spokesperson for Ralphs, said that while the union so far had not engaged in "any meaningful, constructive dialogue," the grocery store chains remain "open for the union leadership to come back to the table." However, Mickey Kasparian, president of UFCW Local 135 in San Diego County, said that negotiations failed because the companies "never budged on key issues" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/13). Union and company officials said they do not expect negotiations to resume in the immediate future (AP/Colorado Springs Gazette, 10/12).
Unionized mechanics working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles County on Tuesday went on strike, bringing bus service to a halt in the area after negotiations broke down primarily over health benefits, the Los Angeles Times reports. The mechanics, who are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, had been working without a contract for more than a year. Talks resumed last week after a more than two-month delay in negotiations. However, issues over MTA's contribution to the union's health plan and the plan's management could not be resolved by Sunday evening, when a court-ordered 60-day injunction that barred a strike or a lockout expired, and negotiations broke off. The MTA contributes about $1.4 million each month to the mechanics' health care fund, and the union is responsible for administering members' insurance policies. However, union leaders say health care costs have risen to about $1.9 million a month over the last year because of health insurance premium increases. The fund is now insolvent. Union leaders have asked the MTA to increase its contributions to the fund, but MTA officials say workers should pay more to support it. The union has offered to increase its members' payments from $6 a month to about $80 a month. MTA officials also allege the union "inefficiently" manages the fund, citing an audit by an accounting firm hired by the MTA that found the union keeps its records manually instead of electronically; does not prepare financial statements in a timely way; has one person to both reconcile bank accounts and issue checks; and has an insurance broker with "little or no incentive to objectively negotiate lower premiums for ATU members," the Times reports. The MTA offered to allocate $1 million to the fund immediately to make it solvent, temporarily take over the health fund, raise its monthly payouts per mechanic from about $533 to at least $607 and increase wages by about 5% over the four-year contract. Union leader Neil Silver rejected the offer, saying that he was "particularly angered by the MTA's insistence that it be allowed to indefinitely control the union's health fund," the Times reports. No buses are scheduled to run until the dispute is resolved, and train service might also be affected because other MTA unions have vowed to honor the mechanics' picket line (Streeter/Bernstein, Los Angeles Times, 10/14).
The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday examined how employers' efforts to reduce health care benefits have become "the top issue in labor contract talks, setting off a wave of strikes and other job actions that are likely to escalate as health insurance costs continue to balloon." Health care benefits have been at the heart of at least 50% of strikes in the state this year, according to Ken Jacobs, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center (Cleeland/Dickerson, Los Angeles Times, 10/14).
The following broadcast programs reported on the grocery store employees' strike:
- KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?": The segment includes comments from Nancy Cleeland, labor reporter for the Los Angeles Times; Rick Icaza, president of UFCW; and Jack Kyser, chief economist and senior vice president at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (Olney, "Which Way, L.A.?," KCRW, 10/13). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KPBS' "KPBS News": The segment includes comments from Kasparian (Anderson, "KPBS News," KPBS, 10/10). The full transcript of the segment is available online. The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KPCC's "KPCC News": The segment includes comments from Icaza and Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education (Lopez, "KPCC News," KPCC, 10/10). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- MPR's "Marketplace": The segment includes comments from BB&T Capital Markets analyst Andrew Wolf and Bernard Sands retail analyst Richard Hastings (Glaser, "Marketplace," MPR, 10/13). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.