Grocery-Worker Talks Are Progressing Slowly

A fire engine in front of the South Pasadena Ralphs. Negotiations continue between grocery-store owners and union employees. Photo by Sally Kilby

Unionized workers at Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs grocery stores are still shopping for a new contract — and with a strike still possible, they’re now bringing their case to customers.

Employees at several Southern and Central California grocery stores were planning what their union leaders called “customer mobilizations” this week. While these were expected at a number of supermarkets throughout the region, none were expected at any South Pasadena locations — although those stores would be affected if the union does walk off the job.

According to the union website, employees will be outside stores to request customers’ support. They will offer patrons handbills and fact sheets.

The decision to act resulted from stalled negotiations between store owners and seven local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) unions. The previous contract lapsed March 3.

UFCW Local 770 represents employees of affected stores in South Pasadena. Vons and Pavilions are part of Albertsons Companies. The Kroger Company owns Ralphs.

UFCW Local 770 representatives were contacted Aug. 16 and 18 to seek information on possible employee actions scheduled for South Pasadena stores. No response had been received by press time.

“We just left the negotiation table today,” read an unsigned memo from union officials dated Aug. 15 and posted on the UFCW Local 770’s website.

“After we gave several comprehensive proposals on healthcare and wages, management’s response was to only offer another nickel a year,” explained the memo writer.

The companies “think they can offer pennies and jeopardize our health care and pensions because we won’t stand up,” the notice continued.

Some progress had been made during July negotiations, however. The companies withdrew proposals to downgrade the classification of cashiers and to rescind payouts for sick leave,  according to the Los Angeles Daily News on Aug. 2.

Since then, the same report said, no meaningful concessions had been made by the corporate owners.

Ralphs, on the other hand, noted on its website Aug. 15 that the company has made several offers, including more “top-rate [wage] increases than what we provided in our last agreement.” The company, the web statement read, has offered to maintain current health-care coverage without changes or contribution increases. Ralphs also proposed to “secure and stabilize” pensions.

The union, it appears, is taking its case to the public.

“It’s time to remind them [grocery chain owners] of the relationships we have with our customers and the impact we can have in our stores and communities,” the website memo to union members read.

Several demonstrations by Local 770 members have already taken place. On Aug. 1, approximately 40 picketers staged an action at the Ralphs Market at 3601 E. Foothill Boulevard in East Pasadena, according to the Aug. 2 Pasadena NOW, a daily online newsmagazine.

“I am not aware of any activity at the South Pasadena [Vons and Pavilions] stores,” said Melissa Hill, the Fullerton-based director of public affairs for Albertsons Companies.

“We are back in negotiations this week,” she said.

Several employees queried at the three South Pasadena sites had no knowledge of a planned strike. Five of them who were asked Aug. 17 at Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs said the union has not informed them that a strike is imminent.

One Ralphs employee said, “We have until the end of the month to find out.”

“The negotiations process can take time to reach reasonable solutions that are best for our associates, our communities and our company,” Ralphs spokesperson John Votava said in an email Aug. 19. “We will again meet with the unions Thursday, Aug. 22 through Sunday, Aug. 25 to continue to work toward a fair and balanced agreement for everyone involved.”

In the meantime, he said, customers will find the stores “fully stocked with fresh merchandise and staffed by our friendly associates.”

Officials of Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions said in a statement to NBC 7 San Diego published Aug. 15 that they are “committed to reaching an agreement that will provide our employees with a competitive compensation package that includes good wages, maintains their affordable health care and provides for their retirement.” At the same time, they said,  they must continue to keep the company competitive in the Southern California market.

The next announcement will most likely be made after the last day of the current round of negotiations, Aug. 25.