Union officials representing grocery workers will return to the bargaining table this month armed with a vote by their rank and file that resoundingly rejected health care proposals by several major supermarket chains.
Rick Icaza, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, said Monday that the weekend's vote by more than 90 percent of those who cast ballots to rebuff Vons', Ralphs' and Albertsons' health proposal show the chains how serious workers are about pushing for a better deal.
"I think the employers were testing us as to whether or not they would give us a strike authorization," Icaza said at a rally outside a Ralphs' market where dozens of workers, union staffers and supporters held signs calling on the markets to improve their offer.
The weekend vote automatically authorized union officials to call a strike 72 hours after the markets are given notice. Some 62,000 grocery workers in Southern California were eligible to vote, although the union did not disclose how many had cast ballots.
Bargaining, which has snagged over the chains' efforts to boost employees' health insurance contributions, were set to resume on Aug. 29, Icaza said.
Union officials say the health care proposal would significantly increase out-of-pocket costs for workers who already make relatively low wages and would lead to the depletion of the fund that supports the employees' health care benefits.
"We believe they're not negotiating in good faith and, unfortunately, that's going to cause a strike," he said.
A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.
Vons stressed the fact that negotiations were ongoing.
"The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process," a Vons release said. "We remain hopeful that we can peacefully reach a settlement that works for both sides. We would urge the union leadership to do the same."
To prepare for a possible strike, Albertsons has started to advertise for temporary replacement workers, chain spokesman Fred Muirhas said.
"Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations and does not necessarily mean a strike will be called. Getting sidetracked by these tactics _ especially when it is clear there is no complete contract offer on the table and because productive negotiations continue _ will only delay our ability to reach a fair agreement for our associates," Muir has said. "The real work toward getting a fair contract will happen at the negotiating table and we hope that's where the union leadership will focus its attention when we return to bargaining."
Ralphs Grocery Co. spokeswoman Kendra Doyel has said her chain is committed to staying at the table to negotiate, and the grocers' proposal was affordable and good for employees and their families.
Union members have been working without a contract since March.
Both sides announced last month that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but payments to the union health care trust fund have been a major sticking point.
Ralphs currently pays more than 90 percent of employee health coverage costs, Doyel said. Workers hired before 2004 pay nothing for health insurance while those hired later pay either $7 a week for single coverage or $15 a week for family coverage.
The companies' proposal would raise that to $9 a week for singles and $23 a week for families. That is much lower than the average cost of health care insurance in California, she said.
But union local spokesman Mike Shimpock said that the union is concerned about the long-term sustainability of the health care fund.
"With the amount they're offering now, the fund would go bankrupt by next September," he said. "We're worried about increased costs, of course. But it doesn't matter if premiums are $2 or $200 if the benefits are eventually eliminated."
Tom Hancock, a checkout cashier at one of Vons' Pavilions stores who took part in Monday's rally, said his concerns about the future of his health coverage were exacerbated when his company sent out a letter instructing employees on how to sign up for the state's Medicaid program.
He said he didn't want to vote in favor of a strike against the markets because the 2003 walkout was tough for him. But, he said, "they left us no choice."