SoCal Grocery Workers Authorize Strike

Grocery workers across Southern California rejected a partial contract proposal and gave their union the right to strike if already stalled labor negotiations with three supermarket chains fail.

Employees at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons filed into fairground halls, hotels and sports arenas Sunday to cast their ballots. Union officials said later the measure authorizing a walkout overwhelmingly passed. A formal announcement was expected Monday.

"We had a really, really high turnout," said Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers. "Our members were very motivated to send the companies a message it's not satisfied with what's on the table and with how long the negotiations have been going on."

The union called the vote after negotiations failed to yield a comprehensive offer from the markets by a union-imposed Thursday deadline. The authorization does not mean a strike is imminent.

Employees at the Ralphs and Vons chains were asked to grant their union negotiators the power to order a strike and whether they endorsed a partial contract offer. Albertsons employees already had given the union clearance to send them to the picket line, and were simply asked about the contract proposal on pay and health coverage.

The chains criticized the decision to hold a vote on an incomplete proposal as premature and accused the union of walking away from the negotiations and stalling progress toward a deal.

"If union leaders were honest with our employees, they'd tell them we're making progress on the core issues of wages, pensions and health care eligibility and are scheduled to continue those discussions next week," Michael Bustamante, a consultant for Ralphs, said in a statement.

The union maintains the supermarkets have been dragging out the negotiations, which began in January.

Three-year contracts covering 65,000 workers at 785 stores from San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield south to San Diego expired in March. The contract has been renewing automatically on a daily basis and will continue to do so until any of the parties opts to end the process.

The union wants to regain concessions made three years ago that created a two-tiered system splitting employees into separate wage and benefit classes.