LABOR: Food workers take strike vote at supermarkets

8/21/2011 22:58:19 PM

Union food workers in Southern California voted Friday on whether to give their leaders the go-ahead for a strike, should the Big Three supermarket chains not offer an acceptable contract.

The Big Three supermarket companies are The Vons Cos. Inc.; Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.; and Albertsons, owned by Supervalu Inc.

The vote by 62,000 workers conjures memories of the 2003 strike that was considered the longest grocery strike in U.S. history.

That bitter, 141-day lockout of union workers ended up costing the Big Three more than $1.5 billion in profit, and the loyalty of some shoppers to burgeoning nonunion rivals such as Walmart, Target and Costco.

Other independent chain grocers such as Trader Joe's, Sprouts, Gonzalez Northgate, Vallarta and Jimbo's Naturally stand to gain if a strike occurs.

In San Diego County, roughly 14,000 workers with the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 135 voted Friday at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Mission Valley, according to a spokesman for the union.

Results may not be known until Monday or Tuesday.

The UFCW is in negotiations on a new three-year contract with the Big Three while discussions with Stater Bros. proceed on a separate track.

If a strike is authorized, more than 150 stores in San Diego and Riverside counties could be affected, according to figures provided by the companies.

In gearing up for the possible strike, Albertsons and Vons have begun taking applications from people willing to work as replacements.

Albertsons spokesman Fred Muir said his grocery chain is bracing for a strike.

Albertsons began posting help-wanted notices in stores on Tuesday, seeking temporary workers.

"It will allow us to have stores open and operating," Muir said.

"We hope there is no strike. Everybody loses in a strike. We'd much rather have union workers at work and serving our customers, and have the union back at the bargaining table."

He also indicated that the union hasn't been clear about what exactly it is voting on.

"Currently, we understand that the vote is a strike authorization vote. It doesn't mean they will call a strike now. What exactly they are putting in front of their members is a mystery to us because there is no comprehensive proposal out there," Muir said.

The two sides have a tentative agreement on pensions, but still need to reach agreement on wage and workplace rules as well as health care coverage ---- the biggest point of contention in the talks. The grocery stores want to shift more of the costs of health care to workers.

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