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Sunday, June 24, 2007

UFCW begins local strike votes

Southern California grocery workers voted Sunday on giving their union the right to strike if negotiations for a new contract fail. The measure is expected to pass. Contract talks between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons over a new agreement for 65,000 workers from Bakersfield to the Mexican border broke off late last week. Sunday's strike authorization vote was set by the union after the grocery chains refused to meet a Thursday deadline for a formal offer.

The voting, at 25 separate locations, was expected to continue as late as 9 p.m., and a formal announcement on the result was not scheduled until Monday morning. But an unofficial answer to the crucial question of whether the strike authorization measure had passed was expected late Sunday night.

In order to pass, at least two-thirds of participating voters have to support the strike authorization measure. If it is approved, it does not mean that there will be a strike, but it gives union leaders added clout in negotiations.

Turnout at one location, Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, was heavy by 8:30 a.m. with the school's parking lot filled to overflowing and voters crowded into a stuffy auditorium for a pre-vote briefing by union leaders. Of those who were polled shortly after their vote, only one said that he was financially prepared for a strike, but everyone interviewed was prepared to support a walkout if union leaders found it necessary.

"What I say at this point is that it is about principle. I am struggling already, but what have I got to lose? Customers say to me 'Please don't go on strike.' But now that I see how I have allowed Vons to deplete me. I know this has to stop. I want to take a stand," said Suzanne Demers, 44, a grocery worker supervisor for Vons store 1623 in Redondo Beach, as she waited for her turn to vote.

Albertsons workers, who voted in March to give their union leaders strike authorization, got a ballot asking for a simple "yes" or "no" on a partial contract proposal. But Vons and Ralphs workers got ballots that left them little wiggle room. They could not reject the offer and at the same time deny the right to strike; a "no" vote committed the workers to both rejecting the offer and authorizing a strike.

The chains and the union have apparently agreed to slash the time new employees must wait before getting healthcare benefits. But in urging workers to vote no, the union said the chains' healthcare proposals would run out of money in three years.

Both sides remain far apart on several issues, including on how to fund the health plan. Raises are likely, but there has been little talk on the size of the increases. Another unresolved issue is the matter of workers who were hired after the 2004 accord and received lower wages and benefits than veteran employees.

The chains have argued that Sunday's vote was premature and should not occur until a full offer was on the table.

The workers' contract has been extended twice since its March 5 expiration. Both sides said Sunday that they were still hoping to avoid a repeat of the bitter 141-day strike and lockout of 2003-04 that decimated the savings of grocery workers and cost the employers an estimated $1.5 billion as well as the loyalty of some shoppers.

Many customers were dreading another impasse, but some said Sunday they were prepared to avoid the picket lines if a strike or lockout occurred.

"Crossing a picket line would give the employers more power to squeeze the wages and benefits of these workers," said Michael Eastman, owner and chief executive from Santa Monica of two Internet-based businesses that offer online music subscriptions and faith-based lifestyle messages. "I'm not going to help them do that."