Union: No progress in contract talks with grocery leaders, vows to ‘do what they have to do’

June 5, 2019

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

Negotiations for a new contract for unionized supermarket workers in Southern California have been ongoing for three months, but progress continues to be negligible, a union leader said Wednesday.

Officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers met with Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons officials Monday and Tuesday, and they left no closer to a contract for the union’s 60,000 workers. Another two-day round of talks is scheduled for next Monday and Tuesday.

If there isn’t any progress after those sessions, which are being moderated by federal mediators, the union would have to move the conflict to another level, said Greg Conger, president of UFCW’s Local 324.

“It’s not going well at all. The employers are being more unreasonable than usual,” said Conger, whose local represents Orange County workers. “We told them we’d see what they have to say next week, or we’d do what we have to do.”

Conger did not elaborate on what UFCW’s next move might be if its proposals are not addressed next week.

John Votava, Ralphs’ director of corporate affairs, said in an emailed statement that they are “negotiating in good faith with the union for a fair and balanced contract that is good for everyone.” He added that this can take time, and he praised workers who continue to serve customers well.

Representatives from Vons and Albertsons did not respond to requests for comment.

The three supermarket chains made their first contract proposal, covering wages, health care coverage and pensions, during three days of talks that ended just before the Memorial Day weekend. The union quickly labeled those proposals as “unacceptable,” and Conger said the proposals did not improve for union workers this week.

Those proposals, union officials said, included a downgrade in the pay grade for cashiers and reductions in the top pay for clerks on the store floors. Also, UFCW said the chains are proposing fewer payments into the union’s health care trust plan, and no offer to secure workers’ pensions.

“It always gets down to the basics: wages, health care and pensions,” Conger said. “That was the case two weeks ago, and it’s still true now.”

Negotiations between the three grocers and the union in Southern California are usually drawn out and frequently acrimonious. In 2003 they led to a lockout and strike that lasted 141 days and cost the chains more than $1 billion in sales. In 2011, the two sides were reportedly on the verge of a second strike when a deal was reached.

One contributing factor to the 2003 and 2004 dispute — one of the longest and most contentious in Southern California’s recent history — was the growth of Walmart and its introduction of food items. Walmart did not pay its employees health care benefits, and the grocery chains tried to cut back on those expenses.

Burt Flickinger III, a retail analyst with Strategic Resource Group, said that competing retailers are probably complicating the negotiations this time as well.

Flickinger said Walmart, Target and even pharmaceutic chains now offer wide selections of food items, and outlets such as Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Dollar Tree are increasing their footprints in Southern California. And Amazon continues to cast a shadow over all major retail decisions, he said

“It’s hard to have an ultimate winner in these negotiations because there’s so much pressure from the people who aren’t in the bargaining room,” Flickinger said.