Cleanup on Aisle 62,000
By Alex Distefano
It happened in 2003, and now it could happen again: a grocery store worker strike looms in the air, threatening to affect around 62,000 workers in Southern California. Union leaders and store management have been at the negotiating table since March, when the three-year contract between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and major retail supermarkets (including Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons) expired.
To say the negotiations have been tense would be a huge understatement. What’s worse, however, is that little (if any) progress has been made on one of the biggest issues at stake: healthcare. The negotiations regarding how much employees should contribute to its costs, store management’s desire to eliminate HMOs, reduce doctor choices for PPOs and increase both premiums and deductibles are issues that are still up in the air.
Phillip Meza, an Albertsons employee of 20 years, works for a store in Ontario. He says that there is not much negotiating, though both sides are still talking.
“We don’t want a strike, but it’s a very tough issue for a lot of us,” Meza tells the Weekly. “They want to gut our healthcare. If they got their way, all of our prices for deductibles and co-pays would be raised while we wouldn’t even keep the same benefits we have now. It would also be devastating for our part-time workers, which are 70 percent of our work force. This is also going to hit people with big families hard and also those who suffer from health problems.”
Meza points out that no one wants to see a repeat of what happened over eight years ago.
“The strike back in 2003 was just awful,” says Meza. “It lasted for 141 days while Albertsons and Vons locked us out of our jobs. No one anticipated it to be that long and it only got tougher as time went on. Fortunately, for my family and I, my wife worked, but so many workers had no income and had to survive on donations; the unions provided food from food banks, but overall it was not a good place to be. At that time, a lot of people lost their cars, homes went through divorce, and there were even a few suicides. It was an ugly situation and we don’t want to see it happen like that again.”
Meza says that the store managers only care about increasing their profits and are using the tough economic times as an excuse to further their own agenda.
“No matter how hard the times are, people still have to eat, and will still shop at grocery stores,” he says. These companies are still making profits. Don’t be fooled.”
The workers, however, are hopeful of a beneficial outcome—but are still prepared for the worst.
“We’re keeping faith that they will avoid another strike,” Meza says. “We don’t have an exact timeline, but the union sends out updates. It’s stressful not knowing and waiting, but as long as they are talking I guess it’s a good thing . . . We just take it day by day. We definitely don’t want a strike, but we will if we have to.”
Ultimately, in the midst of all the uncertainty, the grocery store workers are just appreciative of their jobs.
“As a whole, we are united and grateful for our jobs,” Meza says. “I’ve been with Albertsons for 20 years, and it’s given me a chance to take care of my family. I’d like to thank the shopping public, I’ve built relationships with our customers and it’s been an honor and a privilege.”
In June, a meeting was held in Los Angeles among union leaders and grocery workers to announce a fund set up in the event of a strike across Southern California.
“We pledged $100,000 to start the Grocery Workers’ Hardship Fund should these workers be forced to strike,” Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary treasurer for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said in a written statement. “This fund will grow as needed. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to support these grocery workers.”
According to the UFCW website, the most recent talks were held July 22. Further talks are scheduled.