California Grocery Workers Prepare to Strike over Health Care Givebacks

Grocery workers, who make an average of $25,000 a year, could pay $7,000 more annually for health care under the companies’ proposal. Photo: UFCW Local 770 .

Grocery workers in Southern California are digging in their heels against health care givebacks demanded by three profitable supermarket chains.

Their contract with Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons expired March 6. The 62,000 workers, in stores from the Mexican border north through giant Los Angeles County, voted 90 percent in April to strike if necessary.

A strike is now a strong possibility. Workers whose pay averages $25,000 a year say they could pay $7,000 more out of pocket annually for health care under the company proposal.

Southern California grocery workers last struck in 2003-2004, staying out for 141 days before accepting a pernicious two-tier provision designed to lock new workers into lower pay. Unable to retain workers, though, the companies abandoned two tier in 2007 talks.

“We’re not looking to strike,” said Mickey Kasparian, president of Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 235 in San Diego. “We just didn’t want to go backwards.” But management came in determined to “take an axe to our health care plan.”

WAL-MART STYLE

Union members denounced the health care proposal as creating “Wal-Mart jobs”—ones with insurance so expensive and inadequate that workers don’t buy it.

The employers insist that weekly premiums would not go up much, saying the most expensive plan would cost only $23 a week.

“It’s not the weekly that’s the issue,” said Cynthia Brambilia, a baker at Vons in Hollywood who pays $12.50 a week for herself and her daughter. Instead, the problem is higher co-pays, deductibles, and prescriptions.

John Grant, secretary-treasurer of L.A.’s Local 770, framed the contract fight as basic to community survival.

“The question is, can there be jobs that provide a living wage and benefits for people, that are common throughout the community, and that everyone has access to without a particular degree or profession?” he asked.

Grant said union grocery jobs, though they don’t pay a tremendous amount, provided secure, respectable employment as other private sector jobs became more unstable. Starting wages under the last contract ranged from $8 to $11 an hour.

Union grocery stores account for about 50 percent of the market in Southern California. In the years following the 2003 strike, Wal-Mart rolled out 22 stores statewide that included a grocery section. Union officials still said the discount retailer claimed only a single-digit portion of California’s grocery market.

After negotiations started, Vons sent Medicaid applications to all employees.

The move angered members, said Rick Icaza, president of Local 770, the largest of the seven in negotiations. Wal-Mart does the same with its workers, he noted.

Connie Leyva, president of a Claremont local, blasted the companies’ “mind games,” noting they raked in $5 billion collectively last year. The CEOs of the chains’ parent companies made more than $10 million each.

MAKING THE CASE

The union started communicating with customers about contract issues more than a year ago. Workers wore buttons with the contract expiration date, “March 2011,” to start conversations. They asked customers to sign cards pledging support in case of a labor dispute.

When Los Angeles County banned disposable plastic shopping bags, the union started giving away durable bags, thanking customers for their support during the 2003 strike and asking them to help again—150,000 have been distributed. Stewards are now running the bag distribution and pledge collection, Grant said.

In early June, all the Southern California labor councils voted to support a strike. The L.A. County Fed started a hardship fund for strikers with $100,000 in seed money. The regional Teamsters joint council has pledged support, said Leyva, who is also California State Labor Federation president.

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In the 2003 strike, Teamster drivers honored picket lines, halting deliveries at some stores and slowing them elsewhere.

Area unions are adopting striking stores, vowing to picket and to help strikers with money. They will canvass neighborhoods to explain the strike so shoppers understand the importance of honoring picket lines.

“We want to make it abundantly clear to supermarket companies, if you’re going to take on your workers, you’re going take on everyone else,” said Glen Arnodo, an L.A. County Fed staffer.

In the last month, L.A. and San Diego locals have accelerated leafleting of customers. Clergy and state lawmakers have been visiting store managers to say they support the workers. Customer support is key, said Grant: “If nobody goes in the store it doesn’t matter how many scabs you have.”

Leyva said community support also affects morale. In the 2003 strike, she said, picket lines were honored by 95 percent of shoppers at first, and 85 percent by the end.

But, she said, strikers on picket duty mostly see the line-crossers, some of whom abuse picketers. Community members who are honoring the picket line simply shop elsewhere.

Grant said stress on the picket line was unaddressed until months into the 2003 strike. The union developed “sanctuaries,” nearby community buildings like churches where picketers could rest and be in a supportive place after hours of pressure on the line. This time around they’ve made arrangements to have sanctuaries available from day one, he said.

Union officers expressed urgency about negotiations because health care costs have steadily risen but employer contributions to the jointly administered health and welfare fund have not.

The companies are paying less per hour into the fund than they did 10 years ago, while medical costs have risen sharply. With each month that goes by without a new agreement, the fund depletes by another $8 million.

“We can’t let the benefits fund go under,” Kasparian said. “We’ll get a deal negotiated or we’ll have a strike.”

2003 STRIKE EXPERIENCE

The hard-fought 2003 grocery strike looms large. Workers walked the lines for nearly five months, costing the stores $2 billion, according to the union.

Workers remember the hardships. Grant said the strike vote this time was “wrenching,” with some workers crying as they cast their ballots.

“It’s no small task to take on three of the Fortune 100,” Grant said. Vons is owned by Safeway, Ralphs is part of Kroger, and Albertsons is a division of SuperValu.

Despite inflicting huge losses on the chains and despite solidarity from Teamster drivers and most customers, the union swallowed a two-tier scheme.

Although two tier was officially abolished in 2007, it can still take a worker up to seven years to reach full journeyman pay, because most don’t hire in full-time. Health benefits take months to kick in.

Kasparian noted that the union has “spent a lot of years trying to help these stores fight the Wal-Marts of the world.” But a strike would push customers away. “They’re not helping themselves,” he said.

“We have looked for so many different ways to get that deal done,” he said. “My message to them has been, hey, don’t repeat 2003-2004. It’s going to be devastating. For everyone.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #388, July 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.