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Grocery union, big 3 supermarkets at odds over healthcare

August 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Grocery workers threaten to strike the big three supermarket chains in Southern California in a dispute over healthcare. Grocery workers rallied Wednesday, pushing for a new contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons. The employers have offered a new proposal on the major issue of healthcare.

New figures are out after a Tuesday bargaining session, but the result has been lines of picketers in front of some stores. Management and labor are still at odds over many unresolved issues. The result is a big public-relations campaign currently under way with rallies across the city, with much at stake for both sides.

Grocery workers and union supporters are protesting that proposed increases for medical coverage will send to them to the welfare lines.

Wednesday, management and labor talked numbers, disputing figures offered by each opposing side.

"I am not going to be able to pay my rent if I have to give half of my check to pay for healthcare," said Vons employee Tom Hancock.

"That was an old proposal that I believe they were quoting, so that's inaccurate and not current information," said Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyel.

The contract binding Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons expired six months ago. Now, with a federal mediator, they seek an agreement before the labor groups take a strike vote.

Each side remembers the four-and-a-half-month strike in 2003 that sent many shoppers to other stores. In this economy there is the additional pressure of more competition. Customers have options.

Jobs are precious and these carry health benefits. Under the management proposal, basic coverage would be the same. There would be an extra charge for prescriptions and services not covered.

"Nine dollars a week for individual coverage or $23 a week for full family coverage. This would be for employees who are full- or part-time," said Doyel.

"Our average worker makes $20,000 or less, and that's only if they're full-time, so this still is almost 50 percent of their take-home pay they could be hit for just to maintain healthcare," said Mike Shimpock, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.

"We want to stay at the table. We want to stay at the table until we can reach an agreement that addresses all of these issues and makes it possible for us to have sustainable jobs now and for the future for these union workers," said Doyel.

There has been some progress. The pension issue has been resolved, but not wages. The union hopes to have an agreement by Aug. 19 to take to its members. That vote will be to ratify the agreement, or to reject the agreement and strike.

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