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Latest News - April 2011

April 22, 2011
Strikes authorized: Supermarkets, union locked in contentious negotiations
Source: The Sun, San Bernardino and the Inland Empire
By: Andrew Edwards

Southern California grocery workers are closer to striking if negotiators for their union and three grocery chains fail to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

"Different locals have had different results, but in the end, it was in the 90th percentile," United Food and Commercial Workers spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said Friday.

Union members voted Thursday to give union leaders the authority to call a strike if negotiations for a new contract with Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs break down. The vote does not necessarily mean that grocery workers will go on strike.

Talks are expected to continue next week.

The UFCW also represents Stater Bros. Markets, but negotiates separately with the San Bernardino-based grocery chain.

Stater Bros. chairman Jack Brown said his company's negotiators report directly to him on contract negotiations.

He and others reached for comment said they could not disclose any specific sticking points that may be hindering an agreement.

Asked if he expects to reach a deal soon, Brown said, "We're continuing to negotiate."

Any strike would take place in a much weaker economy than was the case during the 141-day grocery strike of 2003 to 2004.

Grocery chains face rising food and fuel costs, and any workers who decide to strike would be choosing to stay away from work while double-digit unemployment persists in Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire.

What's more, both sides face stiffer competition than was the case about seven years ago.

Unionized supermarket chains now compete not only against one another, but also big box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target and smaller stores like Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market and Trader Joe's.

"This could have a real devastating effect," said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a New York City supermarket consultancy.

Flickinger said he visited California during the 2003-04 strike and that unionized supermarkets controlled 58 percent of Southern California's grocery market in 2004.

Those chains' market share has since shrunk to about 39 percent.

"If there is a strike, everybody loses, and all the nonunion competitors win," Flickinger said.

Negotiators for the UFCW and Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons triumvirate have been in talks since February. The three chains' employers are working under a collective bargaining agreement that expired in March.

All three grocery chains said on Friday they would not comment beyond a statement issued on Thursday.

"Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations and does not necessarily mean a strike will be called," the statement read.

"Getting sidetracked by these tactics will only delay our ability to reach an agreement on a fair contract for our associates," the grocers' statement continued.

UFCW members picketed outside Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons stores during the 2004 strike, and the dispute ended with the union accepting a two-tiered pay structure that reduced compensation for new employees.

Grocery chains lost $1.5 billion during the dispute.

The UFCW and grocery chains avoided a strike in 2007 after prolonged negotiations that resulted in the end of two-tiered pay.

 

 


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