Associated Press

Thousands of southern and central California grocery workers started voting Monday on whether to authorize their union to call a strike against several major supermarket chains.

About 47,000 workers at hundreds of Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores are eligible to vote this week. Results are expected to be released on March 27.

The possible strike would involve grocery clerks, meat cutters, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians represented by seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Negotiations with Ralphs, owned by Kroger, and Albertsons, owner of Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores, ended without agreement before the latest three-year contracts expired March 6.

The union said the next day that the companies’ wage proposal amounted to a 60-cent increase that was “shockingly low” and well below workers’ cost-of-living needs. Employees were asking for a $5-an-hour raise, among other proposals.

“Both companies have refused to agree to expand safety committees in the stores, and have yet to negotiate meaningful health and welfare benefits,” a United Food and Commercial Workers statement said.

The union said that during the final day of negotiations it emphasized the essential role grocery workers played during the coronavirus pandemic.

The union said bargaining committee member Erlene Molina, a Ralphs employee, told company negotiators: “We saw how people were acting like the world was ending, but we could not stay home. We knew that we had an obligation to our community, so we showed up every day.”

John Votava, Director of Corporate Affairs for Kroger’s Ralphs division previously told SMDP that a strike is an unnecessary concern at a time when there should be good faith bargaining. 

“We have three very clear objectives; to put more money in our associates paychecks, keep groceries affordable for our customers and to maintain a sustainable future for our business. By working together, we win together,” he said. 

Albertsons Companies said in a statement that the goal of the negotiation is “to provide our employees with a competitive total compensation package of wages, health, welfare and pension benefits.”

“We are committed to working collaboratively to ensure that we reach an agreement that is fair to our employees, good for our customers, and allows Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions to remain competitive in the Southern California market,” the statement said.

The union has not yet reached agreements with other supermarket chains, including Gelson’s, Stater Brothers & Super A.

Workers are currently voting to give their unions the power to call a strike if necessary. A “yes” vote does not automatically trigger a walkout and both sides will have an opportunity to return to the negotiating table following the results. The strike would be called under an Unfair Labor Practices complaint as opposed to a strictly economic strike and individual unions would have the ability to determine scope and duration of any work stoppage. Pharmacy workers at the impacted stores have a separate contract and will be taking their own vote next week. 

Employees of Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons in 2019 voted to authorize a strike, but contracts ultimately were reached without a walkout.

A 2003-04 strike and lockout put nearly 70,000 Southern California grocery workers on picket lines for more than four months.

SMDP Editor Matthew Hall contributed to this report. editor@smdp.com