Thousands of grocery workers across Southern California have voted to authorize their union to call a strike amid continued contract negotiations with the owners of stores including Ralphs and Vons/Pavilions/Albertsons, the union officials confirmed.
Voting began Monday with the results announced Saturday in a statement posted on the union’s website.
Roughly 47,000 workers represented by seven UFCW union locals between Central California and the Mexico border were eligible to cast ballots. The membership covers workers at more than 500 stores.
“Over the past week, you and your fellow Ralphs, Albertsons/Vons/Pavilions members have made your voice heard by overwhelmingly voting to authorize your bargaining committee, made up of your union and fellow co-workers, to call for a strike if needed,” the statement said.
Get San Diego local news, weather forecasts, sports and lifestyle stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC San Diego newsletters.
Early Sunday, a statement was released on behalf of all seven UFCW Locals that participated in the weeklong voting process.
“Through the past two years of the pandemic, it was the hard work and sacrifice of our members that helped these ... companies earn billions in profits,” it said in part. “As we continue at the bargaining table, all of our local unions are committed to getting a contract that reflects everything these essential grocery workers have contributed to their employers, their customers and their communities.”
Representatives of the supermarket chains have not commented on the union vote.
The “yes” vote does not automatically result in a strike -- it only authorizes the union to call one if no progress is made in labor negotiations.
Union officials announced earlier this month that contract talks had stalled. A three-year-old labor contract between the unionized grocery workers and Southern California supermarkets expired March 7, raising fears of a possible strike.
“Bargaining committees composed of front-line grocery workers and union leaders came prepared with proposals that would fairly increase wages and improve store conditions to reflect the needs of workers in a pandemic and post-pandemic world,” the union said in a statement earlier this month. “The corporations representing the stores offered pennies, a proposal that would ultimately be a pay cut due to inflation.”
Ralphs responded with a statement noting that “a strike authorization vote doesn’t mean a strike will happen, but it does create unnecessary concern for our associates and communities, at a time when we should be coming together in good faith bargaining to find solutions and compromise. At Ralphs, we remain focused on settling a deal with the UFCW.”
“We have three very clear objectives; to put more money in our associate’s paychecks, keep groceries affordable for our customers and to maintain a sustainable future for our business,” according to Ralphs. “By working together, we win together.”
Grocery employees are continuing to work under the terms of the previous contract.
Ralph responded to the strike vote and said its stores will remain open. Ralphs said its latest proposal includes investments in wages of more than $141 million over the next three years, while not increasing health care costs for associates.
“Our proposal invests $141 million in new wages and prevents increases in health costs. This is a serious commitment by Ralphs to Southern California and to our exceptional associates,” said Robert Branton, vice president of operations at Ralphs. “Our three goals throughout negotiations are to reward and invest in our people, keep groceries affordable for our customers and maintain a sustainable business that creates jobs in the future. Ralphs’ proposal meets all three goals. The current UFCW proposal only meets one of those goals. We encourage the UFCW to join us in meaningful and balanced negotiations to promptly deliver wage increases to our associates.”
Ralphs says it pays an average hourly wage of $19 an hour, with more than half of associates having been with the company for more than 10 years, and more than one-third have been with Ralphs for more than 20 years. Ralphs also provides health care benefits and a pension for retired associates.
“Ralphs has always been and continues to be a workplace where our associates come for a job and stay for a career,” Branton said.
Union officials said they are seeking a $5-per-hour wage hike, along with bolstered safety standards and “adequate scheduling and hours.” According to the union, the grocery stores offered a 60-cent-per-hour wage increase.
“Frontline grocery store workers continue to bear the brunt of the COVID pandemic and post-pandemic effects,” according to the union. "More than 10,000 UFCW 770 employees have been infected with COVID, many more lost co-workers, friends and family members. Supermarket employees are overworked, underpaid and undervalued, while grocery companies stack huge earnings -- Kroger alone made $4 billion in profits in 2021.”
Union leaders have accused the supermarket chains of committing unfair labor practices including conducting unlawful surveillance of workers who are protesting and refusing to implement wage increases as required under the previous contract.
In 2003-04, Southland grocery store workers walked off the job over a contract dispute, and the strike lasted 141 days. That work stoppage was estimated by some analysts to have cost the supermarket chains as much as $2 billion, with the workers losing $300 million in wages.
During the last round of negotiations in 2019, grocery workers voted to authorize a strike but negotiations continued for two months, and a labor deal was eventually reached, averting a walkout.
The current contract negotiations are scheduled to resume Wednesday.