- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2011

LOS ANGELES | Thousands of Southern California grocery workers have voted overwhelmingly to reject a health care proposal from major supermarket chains and authorize their union leaders to call a strike, a spokesman said Sunday.

More than 90 percent of voters from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which has about 62,000 members, rejected the proposal from Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons stores.

The rejection automatically authorizes union officials to call a strike after 72 hours

Spokesman Mike Shimpock said the union would not release precise numbers on how many voted, but said the turnout was “huge.” The union will report the results to the dispute’s federal mediator Monday and Mr. Shimpock said more talks would likely follow.

“We’re willing to come back to the table and stay there,” he said. “Our goal here is not to go on strike, we don’t want to go on strike, but unfortunately we’ve been pushed into a corner by these corporations.”

A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.

In a written statement Sunday, Vons stressed the fact that negotiations were ongoing.

“The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process,” the Vons release said. “We remain hopeful that we can peacefully reach a settlement that works for both sides. We would urge the union leadership to do the same.”

To prepare for a possible strike, Albertsons has started to advertise for temporary replacement workers to make sure its stores can stay open, chain spokesman Fred Muir said Sunday.

“Asking for strike authorization is a common tactic in negotiations. … Getting sidetracked by these tactics - especially when it is clear there is no complete contract offer on the table and because productive negotiations continue - will only delay our ability to reach a fair agreement,” he said.

Union members have been working without a contract since March. Both sides announced last month that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers’ contributions to pension benefits, but payments to the union health care trust fund have been a major sticking point.

Ralphs currently pays more than 90 percent of employee health coverage costs, spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said. Workers hired before 2004 pay nothing for health insurance while those hired later pay either $7 a week for single coverage or $15 a week for family coverage.

The companies’ proposal would raise that to $9 a week for singles and $23 a week for families. That is much lower than the average cost of health insurance in California, she said.

But Mr. Shimpock said Sunday that the union is concerned about the long-term sustainability of the health care fund.

“With the amount they’re offering now, the fund would go bankrupt by next September,” he said. “We’re worried about increased costs, of course. But it doesn’t matter if premiums are $2 or $200 if the benefits are eventually eliminated.”