Grocery-union talks: Three days later, offers called ‘unreasonable and insulting’

August 2, 2019

By Jack Katzanek | jkatzanek@scng.com | The Press-Enterprise

Three days of contract negotiations this week yielded no progress for Southern California’s major supermarket chains and the union that represents its workers, which called the stores’ offers “unreasonable and insulting.”

While more talks are scheduled to start in 10 days, the United Food and Commercial Workers will show its frustration by spending much of the next month in front of select stores, gathering support among shoppers in case the stalemate devolves into a strike.

A spokesman for one of the supermarket chains disagreed with the union’s pessimism, citing an honest exchange of ideas this week.

According to a statement posted on the websites of the seven UFCW locals across the region, talks with executives from the Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions chains angered the union. This followed negotiations in mid-July that did yield some progress.

“If you had to grade the progress this week, it would have to come to zero for all three days,” said Greg Conger, president of Orange County’s Local 324. “I guess they’re just not serious about reaching an agreement.”

The union membership in June voted overwhelmingly to authorize its leaders to call a strike if they deem it necessary. UFCW represents about 60,000 supermarket workers across the region, which ranges from the Mexican border to the Central Valley.

Talks held in the third week of July ended with the supermarket execs agreeing to take two items off the table: a proposal to downgrade the classification of cashiers, which would have cut their pay by 25%, and a plan to rescind payouts for unused sick leave, were both withdrawn.

But this week, Conger said, there were no meaningful concessions, and he said his local is planning more demonstrations in front of stores. Local 770, in the greater Los Angeles area, had four of those gatherings this week, and at least five are planned in Inland Empire, Coachella Valley and High Desert locations in the next month.

Conger said he believes those demonstrations are helping the union’s cause.

“And that’s not surprising,” he said. “Customers have told us they would support our picket lines in case there is a strike, and that they would not shop at this store during our demonstration.”

John Votava, Ralphs’ director of corporate affairs, said in an emailed statement that this week’s sessions included “some positive momentum.” Proposals are being exchanged on wages health care and pensions.

“As we have said all along, negotiations can be a long process and take time,” Votava said. “Bargaining is about finding areas of agreement, working toward reasonable solutions and compromising where both parties can.”

Representatives of Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions, all owned by New York-based investment fund Cerberus Capital Management, did not respond to a request for comment.

Union leaders have said the chains are offering wage gains of only 1% and inadequate funding of the workers’ health care trust.

Joe Duffle, president of Local 1167, which represents Inland Empire workers, said either the companies are out of touch with their employees’ needs or they don’t want to address them.

“It will get to the point where they’ll get serious, or we’ll have to get serious,” Duffle said.

Despite the stalled progress, Burt Flickinger III, a retail analyst with Strategic Resource Group, predicts it could be another two months before the possibility of a strike becomes imminent because both sides are using skilled negotiators who all want an agreement.

“The union wants something that’s constructive for its membership and maintains the level of open stores,” Flickinger said. “And it’s important for the unionized chains to keep talking rather than let non-unionized stores take advantage of a bad situation.”