Unionized grocery workers from across Southern California began casting votes Friday on whether to accept the latest health-care proposal from three supermarket changes and whether to authorize a strike, City News Service reported. The vote will continue through Saturday.
Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons—each of which has at least one location in Redondo Beach—said the latest proposal on the table would keep health-care expenses at current levels and cost workers only $9 per week for single coverage or $23 per week for family coverage.
"The employers' goal throughout these negotiations is to provide their employees with a solid compensation package, including affordable health care, and to also produce an agreement that will enable the companies to compete in Southern California in a difficult economy with aggressive, low-cost competition," the chains said in a statement when the proposal was first put on the table.
Nevertheless, union officials condemned the latest offer. According to officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, many grocery workers would have to spend nearly half their salaries to cover health costs.
According to union spokesman Mike Shimpock, the dispute centers on the amount of money the supermarkets put into a health-care trust fund. Payments to the trust fund have decreased over the past decade, and if the employers don't add more money to the fund, it will go bankrupt within about a year, Shimpock said. This would leave thousands of workers without health care.
The union and the grocery chains have yet to reach an agreement on wages, either.
The two sides previously reached an agreement on pensions, but while the supermarkets called the deal , union officials called it "."
Still, both sides have said they want to avoid a walkout.
"Nobody wants to go on strike," union spokesman Mike Shimpock told City News Service. "It'll hurt the market, it'll hurt us ... but we have to draw a line in the sand here and say we need a fair deal.
"This vote is about sending a message to corporations for us and for everybody," he said. "If you work hard, you should be able to support your family."
Meanwhile, the grocery chains told ABC7 that they were making contingency plans just in case a walkout does occur.
"We want to avoid a strike," Ralphs spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said. "The best thing for everyone is to stay at the table and continue negotiating. Our workers want to keep working. Our stores are open and ready for customers, but should something change, we have a plan in place to make sure we can take care of everyone going forward. But we certainly hope that doesn't happen and that we don't have to put things into place."
Results of the vote will probably be available Sunday or Monday. Even if workers vote to authorize a strike, a walkout won't necessarily happen. Union organizers will be authorized to call a strike if negotiations break down.
Union members are currently working under the terms of a contract that expired March 6. That contract was ratified in 2007 after more than six months of negotiations.
During the 2003-2004 strike and lockout, which dragged on for 141, the supermarkets lost about $1.5 billion, and many grocery workers lost their savings.
City News Service contributed to this report.