SoCal grocery workers authorize strike in the middle of negotiations

Wrecked by two years of pandemic stress, tens of thousands of Southern California food workers overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if supermarkets fail to meet their wage demands as negotiations on a new contract resume in the coming weeks.

The five-day vote could lead to strikes starting in some Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs markets extending from central California to the Mexican border.

United Food and Commercial Workers announced that 95% of those voting in seven local unions approved a potential strike.

A three-year contract for 47,000 workers in 540 stores expired on 6 March. Negotiations for a new deal began in January but stalled three weeks ago. Workers seek substantial wage increases, higher minimum hours for part-timers, and store-level health and safety committees as pandemic problems persist.

“These companies may come to the table ready to negotiate a fair deal or we will have to take this battle elsewhere,” said Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles and chief negotiator.

Trading will resume on Wednesday.

A woman poses in the middle of the trade union strike signs.

Rachel Fournier, a member of the UFCW Local 770 bargaining committee, stood at the union headquarters in Los Angeles last week as members make signs for a strike.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Ralphs began hiring temporary workers to prepare for strikes. In a statement, the company said its stores will remain open despite the vote. “Nobody wins in a strike, not our associates, not our company, not our communities and not the union,” it reads.

“The outcome of the strike authorization vote does not change anything in relation to this process,” Albertsons said in a statement. “We remain committed to negotiating a contract that is fair to all parties.”

The vote, which allows union leaders to call a strike if a deal fails, increases pressure on two of the country’s largest grocery chains: Kroger, the parent company of Ralphs, and Albertsons, which owns Vons and Pavilions.

The showdown comes in a moment of trade union unrest nationwide. Grocery workers, aware of their “essential” status linked to the pandemic, have put their foot down, not just in California, but in Oregon, Colorado and other states.

Employees of other large companies including Amazon Other Starbucks they are trying to unionize. And labor shortages are plaguing industries across the country as staff change jobs for higher pay. Inflation is on the rise at record levels in California and the United States

Unlike the nearly five months in Southern California food strikes in 2003 and 2004 during which the entire union workforce dropped out after chains pushed to cut wages and benefits, this month’s clearance is framed as a “unfair work practiceaction. Under federal law, this allows for a strike in selected stores instead of a full blown strike.

The union filed claims this month with the National Labor Relations Board that supermarkets tried to intimidate and illegally influence workers, charges the companies denied.

The distress of grocery workers has grown over time as their pay has failed to keep up with the high cost of living in Southern California and companies have shifted more than two-thirds of their workforce to part-time status.

In the Los Angeles area, a living wage – defined as the minimum income for a worker to meet basic needs – ranged from $ 19.22 per hour for a single person with no children to $ 34.01 for families with two working adults and three children in 2020, according to the latest data in a living wage calculator created by MIT.

UFCW is demanding that the highest-paid longtime workers – food clerks that include cashiers and warehouse workers – receive a $ 5 hourly increase by the end of a new three-year contract. They currently make $ 22.50 an hour after five or seven years. The companies offered a $ 1.80 raise.

One third of the workforce falls into the category of food workers.

Another third of grocery workers – general merchandise employees, including food preparers and non-food stockpersons – now earn a maximum of $ 17.02 per hour. The union would raise it by $ 8 an hour over three years, saying they do similar work to the highest-paid food clerks. The companies offered $ 2.

Bargaining has yet to begin on the lowest-paid third of the workforce: baggers and clerks, who earn just over the state’s $ 15 minimum wage.

Kroger and Albertsons offer medical and retirement benefits, unlike many non-union retailers. UFCW salary proposals “would lead to an extra $ 400 in monthly grocery bills for most Southern California households [and] push customers to non-union competitors who do not comply with collective bargaining, ”said John Votava, director of corporate affairs at Ralphs.

Non-union markets like Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are fierce competitors. And non-union retailers like Walmart and Target have expanded their grocery businesses in recent years.

Supermarkets traditionally operate thin profit margins of around 2%. But the pandemic turbo-charged revenue as restaurants closed and more people ate at home. Kroger’s operating profit nearly doubled to $ 4.3 billion from 2019 to 2021.

In 2020, the company paid $ 1.3 billion to investors, money workers said should have gone to pay them more as they faced the risks of COVID-19 at work. Kroger’s chief executive, Rodney McMullen, has been criticized for raising a $ 22.4 million pay package in 2020, the largest ever, even though the company ended a $ 2-hour risk bonus for frontline workers after two months.

A pair of hands hold a poster before a strike vote for grocery workers in Southern California.

A strike would affect tens of thousands of workers in 540 grocery stores stretching from central California to the Mexican border.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach passed ordinances last year that required the offer of chains several months of risk indemnityKroger closed five markets, saying they were “financially unsustainable”.

“Grocery workers are essential,” said John Grant, president of Local 770. “They are not easily replaceable due to the shortage of manpower. We don’t want another break. but we are ready to strike “.

At UFCW Local 770’s Los Angeles office last week, two dozen grocery store employees hammered wooden sticks on signs that read “Strike”, “Huelga” and “Please respect our picket” in red letters. black and white.

Among them was Rachel Fournier, a 44-year-old cashier who worked 17 years at a Los Angeles Ralphs. Her hourly wage is now $ 22.50, the company’s maximum. Despite her repeated requests, she has never been able to obtain full-time status.

“Working 28 hours a week doesn’t pay the rent,” he said. “He won’t put food in your children’s belly.”

Full-time workers get slightly better benefits and more holidays, he said, so the company’s computer system signals workers whose hours are increasing “and knock you down to keep you from qualifying.”

Fournier’s husband is unemployed after a car accident and she has taken her sister and a roommate as boarders to make ends meet. However, she said, she regularly runs out of money before her salary reaches her bank account.

“Twenty years ago this was a middle-class job,” he said. “But companies have squashed and squashed us with meager wage increases in recent contracts.”

In two years, 7,709 workers in the food sector of Local 770 contracted COVID-19, according to data provided to the union by the shops. The pandemic has created “a spirit that we need to defend ourselves,” Fournier said. “People are fed up and can’t wait to leave.”

A man poses for a photo. Behind him are people working at a white table, cutting out signs and organizing boxes.

Marco Escalante, 46, who works the night shift as a warehouse worker at Vons in Echo Park, wants to switch to full-time work but said he usually has 30 hours a week.

(Margot Roosevelt / Los Angeles Times)

Marco Escalante, 46, was also there, stacking up signs for a strike.

After 24 years in a Vons in Echo Park, Escalante earns $ 22.50 an hour on a midnight to 8:30 am shift by unpacking pallets and stacking shelves. He would like to work full time but normally only gets 30 hours a week.

Given inflation, the company’s offer of an extra 60 cents an hour for each of the next three years equates to a wage cut and a “slap in the face,” he said.

Escalante, who has a working wife and three children, was one of the leaders of the 2003-2004 strike. “After nearly five months, they broke us,” he recalled. “Every contract since then has been for 20 cents here, 20 cents there. I was making more money 15 years ago than it is now. “

The pandemic has changed the dynamics of bargaining, he said. “Our members got sick and took him home. Customers threw themselves into the shops. And the companies said that you only have so many sick days, so you have to come to work. They showed no empathy for our sacrifices. “

Escalante sees increasingly strong union sentiments among younger workers. Authorizing a strike, he said, shows companies: “We know they have made billions in profits and we are not afraid to quit. There is a big change coming. “