A major labor dispute over health care could soon have thousands of grocery workers hitting the pavement and families across Southern California changing the way they shop for food.
Local labor officials pledged major support Wednesday to 62,000 grocery workers. The LA County Federation of Labor, a union representing over 300 local unions in Los Angeles, voted unanimously to support the grocery workers if they decide to strike.
"We're prepared to do whatever it takes to support those grocery workers and their children," said Maria Elena Durazo, Secretary Treasurer of LA County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
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"It's all about health benefits this time," said Rick Icaza, President, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. "We don't want to strike but we're prepared to strike if we have too."
Employees are now having to "pay deductibles, premiums, and all the things that have caused the fact the employers are not paying their fair share in the health and welfare benefits," he said.
The work stoppage would be aimed at Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons, and force shoppers to seek alternate grocery stores it they don't want to cross picket lines.
In response, Kendra M. Doyel, Group Vice President of Marketing for Ralphs, released a statement on behalf of the three chains:
"We are still actively negotiating, and any talk of a strike is unnecessary. Our extension agreement is still in place and we have additional meeting dates on the calendar. The only place where we can reach an agreement is at the bargaining table, and we believe our focus should be there, reaching a fair and reasonable contract."
A flyer distributed at Ralph's stores claims the company's benefits are "among the best" in the industry.
A proposal sent to the union calls for employees to pay health care costs of either a $9 a week for individual coverage or $23 a week for full family coverage, according to the flyer. Employees would qualify for a health care plan by working between 16 to 24 hours per week depending on their position.
However, the company would not elaborate on the specific deductibles of the plans.
Ralph's said it would increase its contribution to the health care fund from $234 million from the last three years to $365 million over the next three years, the flyer said.
Union spokesperson Mike Shimpock disputed Ralph's position, saying more health care costs are being shifted to the employees.
The three supermarket chains collectively made more than $5 billion in profits in 2010, but still want to force the average grocery worker who makes $20,000 a year to pay an additional $7500 a year for health benefits.
The union claimed that while the cost of living and health care has increased, the chains costs have remained stable. One chain, they said, actually instructed employees who needed health care to apply for public assistance.
"What we're faced now with-- the reality-- Safeway stores, or Vons for all intense and purposes, has instructed their people…to go to the government for public assistance even though they made all this profit," said Rick Icaza. "That's ridiculous."
The contract for the Southern California grocery workers expired more than two months ago, but there is no timetable for a strike.
The last walkout by the grocery workers affected more than 220 grocery stores throughout Los Angeles County. That one started in 2003 and carried into 2004 and cost Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons about $2 billion.