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Grocery Workers, Supermarkets Avoid A Walkout

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Strike drama reopens old wounds

By Chris Levister –

Grocery workers and local supermarkets Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons have reached a tentative contract agreement, possibly averting a strike.

The union negotiators agreed, saying in a statement Monday, “We have attained our most important goal, which was continuing to provide comprehensive healthcare to the members and their families.”

The agreement still needs to be approved by union members before going into effect. News of the agreement came as 62,000 grocery workers were poised to walk off the job.

Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union gave a 72-hour strike notice on Thursday, and a walk-out could have started as early as Monday.

Health care was the major issue at the negotiating table. Union officials said their most recent contact offer would require workers to pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage. But union officials said the companies were not increasing their contributions to the health care fund, insisting the plan would be bankrupt in about 16 months.

The drama surrounding the labor dispute was déjà vu all over again for Niesha Timmons of Redlands.

“I swear these guys time their disputes to coincide with the delivery of my babies,” said Timmons leaving the Von’s store on Orange Street in Redlands. Her son Clete who suffers from autism and a blood disorder requires special foods. He was born three months after the start of the 2003-04 strike which lasted 141 days.

Today Timmons is 8 months pregnant with her third child. She left the store pushing a shopping cart overflowing with special (soya-based, iron- fortified, hypoallergenic, foods for special medical purposes).

Like many Inland grocery shoppers she left nothing to chance.

“I’m not taking any chances this time around,” she said before news of the accord. “It was hell running around trying to find the gluten-free formula and other special diet products I usually buy from Von’s, so I’m stocking up in advance.”

The labor contract between the union and their employers, ratified four years ago, expired March 6th, and workers had continued on a day-to- day basis since then. While a work stoppage was avoided the threat brought back painful memories of 2003-2004’s protracted strike and lockout, which lasted four months and cost the stores roughly $2 billion.

During that time, many shoppers drove out of their way to non-union stores rather than cross picket lines, either in support of the action or to avoid risking heated confrontations with striking workers.

“It’s a huge headache for everyone involved,” said Melissa Harris of Riverside, a teacher and mother of five leaving the Von’s store in Redlands.

“On one hand strikes are a real inconvenience but I’m a union sympathizer. The workers deserve a fair wage and healthcare,” said Harris. “I would not cross their picket lines.” Von’s employee Heather who voted in favor of a strike says walkouts hurt both sides. Everyone loses. There are no winners. Big three’s shrinking market share Meanwhile the strike drama surrounding Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs stores in Southern California and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union exposed the chain’s shrinking market share. Non-union stores, farmer’s markets, discount shops, specialty high end stores, small independents and big warehouse clubs have eaten away at their business.

In 2004 the chains held nearly 60 percent of the Southern California grocery trade, according to the research firm Strategic Resource Group in New York. Today the big three have a 23% share.

Today the chains have fewer stores in Southern California, and fewer employees. Albertsons has closed 67 locations since the 2003- 04 strike and worker lockout. Ralphs has closed 48 stores, and Vons and Pavilions are down 47.

“I used to shop at Ralphs before the last strike,” said Robert Beechman, a retired Redlands engineer.

“After the strike the big chains got very sloppy. Long lines, high prices and poor customer service turned a lot of people off. I didn't leave the because of higher prices. I left because of bad service. I joined Costco during the strike,” said Beechman. “I discovered that the membership pays for itself. The clerks were efficient and friendly. They have competitive prices on electronics and furniture so I usually get cash back at the end of the year.”

Whole Foods has brought in customers eager for organic and sustainably grown products. Trader Joe's has developed a cult following for its eclectic branding and low prices. Costco has become a weekly stop for large families. Ethnic markets such as Seafood City are catering to the region's growing Asian population, while El Super and Superior Grocers have been successful in drawing Latinos.

At this Stater Bros. Market on Fortieth Street in San Bernardino shoppers appeared ho-hum about the looming work stoppage.

“I switched to Stater’s years ago,” said a woman exiting the store. “I think people like me just got fed up with Von’s and those big stores. They’re greedy.”

Bernardino-based grocer Stater Bros. is negotiating separately and not facing threat of a strike. As for support of the worker’s demands many shoppers hung their opinions on the continuing bad economy.

“I’m in support of the workers because I think we have to preserve the middle class,” said James Castillo. “But I don’t feel employers should have to bear the full cost of providing healthcare. Back in the day when it was cheap they could. Times have changed. We can’t have it both ways. People and businesses are hurting. I’m lucky to have a job.”

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