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Will We Have Another Grocery Strike?

Aired 8/3/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Most San Diegans will remember the picket lines outside major grocery chains back in 2004. This time around, union workers have been without a contract since March, and they say time is running out for negotiations.

Grocery Store
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Above: Grocery Store

We begin today with the looming issue of a supermarket workers strike in San Diego. Most San Diegans will remember the picket lines outside major grocery chains back in 2004. That strike lasted more than 140-days. This time around, union workers have been without a contract since March, and they say time is running out for negotiations.

Guest: Mickey Kasparian, president, Local 135, United Food and Commercial Workers Union

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, August†3rd. Later this hour, we'll talk about the opening of a new facility to reclaim purified waste water if San Diego, and the public is invited to take a look. And summer time and sore Isis do not make a great combination. Our guest will discuss the physical and emotional help available. We begin today with the looming issue of a super market worker strike in San Diego. Most San Diegans will remember the picket lines outside major grocery chains back in 2004. That strike lasted more than 10040†days. This time around, union workers have been without a contract since March, and they say time is running out for negotiations. Joining us is Mickey Kasparian, he's president of the Local 135 of the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union. Hello.

KASPARIAN: Hello.

CAVANAUGH: We asked representatives from the super markets to join our conversation this morning, but they declined our invitation. What super market chains are involved in these negotiations.

KASPARIAN: We call them the big three. It's Albertson's, Ralph's, and Vons.

CAVANAUGH: What is the biggest point of contention?

KASPARIAN: As always in negotiations, it's healthcare. And we've been discussing healthcare since early February. And we have made no progress. I mean, usually in negotiations,ing you make some progress. We have made absolutely no progress.

CAVANAUGH: Wasn't healthcare the big issue back in 2004 as well?

KASPARIAN: It was. And some of these issues are rearing their ugly head once again. Those negotiations, I think were a little different. Of we came out of those negotiations understanding the economy, understanding the dynamics, of what's transpiring around our city state and country. And we came up with very modest proposals. We wanted to maintain our healthcare. We weren't looking for improvement, we didn't have this huge wish list, and unfortunately the employers want to take our benefits and take an ax to them.

CAVANAUGH: What have they offered in the way of healthcare?

KASPARIAN: Literally destroying it. It would be shifting $450†million of costs from the employers onto our members' backs. That equates to about 50% of our members' take-home pay. Up to $11,000 a year would come out of our members' pockets in the form of healthcare costs. And grocery workers, there may be a misconception here . The average grocery worker is making about $25,000 a year. So $11,000 a year is half take-home pay.

CAVANAUGH: But that $11,000 is a cap on catastrophic coverage, right and.

KASPARIAN: It certainly would be regarding things like deductibles, out of pocket expenses, certainly. As we know, any one of us could have issues with our health the at any given time. If any of our members, never mind the 60,000 members we're negotiate for this, they would be at the point of losing their homes, cars. You should never have to make a decision am I able to get benefits for my family or do I pay my rent?

CAVANAUGH: Now, the grocery store chains are saying that, look, grocery union workers who were hired before don't pay anything for their health insurance coverage. And that is almost -- doesn't exist anymore. Almost in every single category that you go down, even people with great benefits. Especially pay something if they have family coverage. Do you think that that's unreasonable for the chains to say, hey, look, we really do need you guys to kick in something.

KASPARIAN: I would highly dispute that nothing. Our full time members are actually kicking in $600 a month. When we negotiate, when we go into contract negotiations, we negotiate wages benefits and all different things. Retirement. Of and our members, to allow those health contributions that the employers are making, our members have foregone wage increases for a long, long time. If you look at the contributions that are being made to healthcare, it's over $600 a month for a full time person. Our members are definitely putting in their fair share of healthcare costs.

CAVANAUGH: What you're saying, because they have foregone any kind of wage increase for quite some time, you feel that should go toward the idea of maintaining either no employee contribution for healthcare costs or a minimal one.

KASPARIAN: We understand the economic times. The healthcare times are different. We're not unreasonable in these negotiations. But certainly to have our members faced with what's being proposed right now is unconscionable.

CAVANAUGH: We have a letter from Albertson's, and as I said, they declined to be on the program, but they also said they came out with this healthcare proposal about eight weeks, two months ago, and so far there has been no counter proposal from the union. Why?

KASPARIAN: It's an absolute lie. We have actually made a proposal to them 37†days ago. I checked my calendar before I came on the show, and they have not responded to our healthcare proposal. I guess they looked at it and because they didn't like it deemed it not being a proposal. But we certainly made modifications to our first proposal, and they have yet to respond. Of.

CAVANAUGH: Let's move something that there has been some agreement on. And that's the pension plan. You have reached agreement on that?

KASPARIAN: We've reached a tentative agreement on the funding of the plan, the dynamics of the actual issues will be worked out. But on the funding of it, yes, we have had a tentative agreement of the that's the good news. The bad news is, until you have a complete deal, it's just tentative, and that's why we're cautioning our members all along, it's not a deal until it's a deal.

CAVANAUGH: Negotiations between the groceries and the unions have been going on since March; is that right?

KASPARIAN: February.

CAVANAUGH: February. Okay. The strike vote has been taken in.

KASPARIAN: Yes. We took a strike vote in May, in which our members voted by more than 90% to authorize a strike based on the employers' proposal that was on the table at the time. We certainly can go out and have picket lines going up. We know the inconvenience that was to the public. Certainly to our members, and quite frankly, to the companies. We lost a lot of money during that time. We are trying to avoid that. But we feel right now we're kind of getting pushed to the brink. Again, it's not -- the last thing we want to do is negotiate a strike. We're here to negotiate a contract. But the clock is ticking.

CAVANAUGH: Unemployment is high, we're still trying to struggle out of a recession, all of the country as well as here in San Diego. Realistically, isn't this a very bad time for a strike?

KASPARIAN: Probably the worst time. But I think we have to in this country start thinking about not only providing jobs, but providing good jobs. The reason why the economy is the way it is today is because the middle class is failing. And without the middle class, the economy is going to continue to suffer. So we're out here trying to just provide good jobs for our members, and yes, unemployment is high, yes people need jobs out there, but shouldn't we look at people who need good jobs and can provide for their families rather than working 3 and 4 jobs just to get by? Yeah, it's a bad time to strike. But we need to make sure that our members' benefits maintain in tact and they continue to be good jobs.

CAVANAUGH: I remember the grocery strike in 2004, and I know that a lot of shopper it is refused to cross picket lines and supported the unions at that time. We're living as I say, in a different economy now, maybe even in a different political climate. Do you think a strike would have a chance of working?

KASPARIAN: I think we would get the same support. The one thing we learned from our customers, some supported the union, some didn't. But they all supported the workers. And that's why 70% of the customers did not cross the picket lines during the laborer dispute. And remember we struck one company, Vons, but Albertson's and raffle's locked our people out. So we only struck one company. But yes, I think we would get the same community support.

CAVANAUGH: I understand the union has asked for a federal mediator to assist in the talks. Why that is that?

KASPARIAN: There comes a time in negotiations when both sides need someone to push you along. And we have certainly a phenomenal mediator. He was very helpful to us in 2007 when we had some similar issues. And he's done a great job. At the end of the day, both sides have to be willing to get to a point of making a deal.

CAVANAUGH: The company Albertson's says that the request for a federal mediator is slowing down negotiations because of the availability of that mediator. What can you tell us about that?

KASPARIAN: I would totally disagree. The mediator had schedule conflicts one week. We've been meeting with these companies for seven months. And while we are available, 24 -- and I'm not saying this to make it seem like it's a joke or something. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have yet to have the employees meet with us more than three days in any work. There's no sense of urgency. We want to get to a deal, not only what's good for our community and members, you go for the peace of mind of the companies as well. Get this done with. It's all of Southern California. To say that the mediator schedule is holding things up, I challenge the employers: Are you ready to meet seven days a week, 24 hours a day until we get this done? And they refuse to show us that.

CAVANAUGH: It seems that the union feels there's an increasing sense of urgency to get this deal done. Why is that?

KASPARIAN: We are being pushed to the brink right now. A lot of people say continue to negotiate. Since March†6th, the employers are not adequately funding the benefit fund as they should. We are deficit spending 8 to $10†million a month in that fund. And the thought process is they only want to meet with us 2 or 3†days a week. They're not funding it properly. At some time, we would have to either reduce or eliminate our members' benefits while we're still negotiating, which doesn't seem real fair. They're pushing us up against the wall, and when I say the clock is ticking, because they've done this in other areas and they force workers to take whatever was on the table just out of fear of losing their health benefits. We can't let them do that to our members. So the reason there's a sense of urgency is because our members will be working but working with no health benefits, and we can't allow that to happen. So we're going to have a deal or a dispute, but it's going to happen quickly.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine there are some people listening who say these guys don't know when they have it good. They have a union representing them, they have jobs, they have benefits. A lot of people are going through a lot of hard times. And I'm wondering what you would say to San Diegans who would counter and say, look, you're sitting in butter, fella. Will you just don't understand it.

KASPARIAN: I would say that this is not about a union issue or nonunion issue. This is about our country. It's about our country trying to flourish. When I grew up, my dad used to always talk to me about the American dream. And when you see what's happening in our country right now, it's not exactly the American dream that my dad talked to me about. Unemployment is high, people having to work 2 or 3 jobs, they don't see their families, and we're just out here not only fighting for our grocery members, we're fighting for everybody in the city and state, that jobs in this country should be good ones, people should be able to provide for their families, be able to go to the little league games on the weekends, and people should have health benefits that they could take their children to the doctor and really live the American dream. So that's what I would say. While I represent a laborer union, I really feel that every day I'm out here working and fighting for everybody who lives in the City of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone once again that we did invite grocery representatives to be on our program today, but they couldn't make it. And I want to also thank you very much. I've been speaking with UFCW union local 135 president Mickey Kasparian. Thank you.

KASPARIAN: It's a pleasure. And hopefully, the next time we talk, we have a deal. Thank you.

Comments

Avatar for user 'astrofan'

astrofan | August 4, 2011 at 12:14 p.m. ― 3 years ago

I found it interesting that Maureen said that people didn't shop at the stores during the last strike to, "show support for the unions." Certainly that is true of a number of people, but I'm also sure a large number stayed away so they would not be bullied, intimated, or shouted at by union strikers.

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