Unionized grocery workers from around northern California gathered Friday at the Oakland Hilton to announce plans to escalate their fight against three major grocery chains if the stores do not agree to protect health care and other union benefits.
The announcement came just as the workers’ old contract expired. That contract prevented workers from calling for a boycott or going on strike. But now that it has expired, workers said they can, and will, do whatever it takes to win a fair contract.
The th ree different stores that could be affected include Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger. All three had the option of continuing the contract until a new contract was signed but all refused, according to the union.
“After more than four months [of contract neg otiations], the employers have made no movement in their economic bargaining,” said Ron Lind, a spokesperson for the eight United Food and Commercial Worker (UFCW) union locals that are part of the contract. He called the stores ‘health care offers “unwor kable” and “unacceptable.”
The deadline for the stores to acknowledge the union’s demands is Jan. 24.
According to Lind, the health care proposal that the stores have offered would make health care unaffordable for many employees. Currently, employees d o not pay for health insurance. Under the initial contract offer from the stores, employees would have paid as much as 20 percent of the premium cost. Workers would also have covered increases in premiums, which have risen sharply for the past several yea rs.
“We have been committed and we remain committed to working out a contract at the bargaining table,” said Jennifer Webber, the director of public affairs for Safeway’s northern California division. “What happens at the parking lots does not impact what happens at the bargaining table,” she added, in reference to the rally.
The union also announced that it would expand their campaign to Albertsons stores because of what it said was Albertsons “aggressive stance at the bargaining table.” Up until now, the union has only been targeting Safeway, asking shoppers to sign cards pledging to support the union in the event of a boycott or a strike.
Another sticking point for the union has been the stores’ proposal for wages. According to the union, the latest offer from the stores includes a two-tier wage system that divides new and current employees. New food clerks, for example would start at $8.45, instead of around $9.45, an hour. They would top out at $17, instead of the current $21.16, an hour. It would also take new employees five times longer to reach the top of the job classification.
“In my time at Safeway, I have been able to buy a house and put my daughter through college,” said Debra Talcott, a worker who spoke at the rally. “However, those days may be over.”
Several of the employees said they were ready to go on strike. They did not seem to be daunted by the almost five-month strike that consumed southern California grocery stores last year.
When asked what she thought of the possibility of a strike, Deborah Chesbrough, a 15-year employee at the Safeway in Menlo Park said, “I would be out there with my kids, although I know it is a last resort.”