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Grocery Workers Inch Closer To Strike

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 770.

Credit: UFCW International Union

Above: Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 770.

Union workers rejected the health care proposal presented by supermarket leaders. We'll find out what's at stake for grocery workers and how the cost of food factors into the debate.


Union representatives for grocery workers go back to the negotiating table today with some powerful new ammunition. Over the weekend, rank and file members voted to reject a company proposal on health care contributions. The vote allows the union to call a walkout with as little as 72 hours notice.

What impact would another strike against supermarket chains Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons have on San Diego shoppers? And would it be a win or a big loss for the supermarket union?


San Diego State University management professor emeritus, Dr. Jai Ghorpade.

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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: This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's Monday, August†22nd, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. We're keeping an eye on the developing situation in Libya, and we'll go to international coverage for any breaking news developments. On today's show, Escondido is making moves to embrace diversity as San Diego farmers and landscapers are told to keep an eye out for the South American palm we shall. Our top story today, union representatives for grocery workers are going back to the negotiating table with powerful new ammunition. Over the weekend, rank and file members voted to reject company proposals on healthcare contributions. The vote allows the union to call a walk out in as little as 72†hours notice. What impact would another strike against Vons, raffle's, and Albertson's have on San Diego shopper, and would it be a win or a big loss for the super market union? My guest, San Diego state university management professor emeritus, Jai Ghorpade. And welcome to Midday Edition.

GHORPADE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: As you understand it, what are the issues separating the two sides in these negotiations? It sounds like it's mainly healthcare benefits.

GHORPADE: Well, there are some issues in the background, which have to do with wages and the other kinds of benefits. But the sticking point appears to be healthcare.

CAVANAUGH: And we had a local grocery union president, Mickey Casparrian on the show, he says these negotiations represent a fight for the middle class. Do you agree with that?

GHORPADE: Yes, yes, want most certainly. This is this is an attempt by unions to hold onto the gains that they made over the years. It's nothing short of a struggle for survival in our economy. Yes, very much so.

CAVANAUGH: What other financial pressures, though, that the super markets are facing?

GHORPADE: The super markets are under incredible pressures, stemming from international competition, rising costs, simply the fact that they have to do much more than they used to get food delivered to the grocery stores. There's no question about the fact that they are under stress also.

CAVANAUGH: They have a -- I think that I understand grocery super markets actually have a very low profit margin; is that right?

GHORPADE: That has been so historically, yes.

CAVANAUGH: So they don't have a lot of working room if they want to maintain their products.

GHORPADE: It depends on the products and some products they have a little more flexibility than others, but generally, no. They deal with volume.

CAVANAUGH: Is part of what the super markets are saying is that increased costs of health benefits for workers would affect how much we pay for groceries?

GHORPADE: That could be construed that way. These costs tend to get passed onto the worker, that is true. But what we don't know is what the starting point is, where are they starting from, how much costs are going to be increased?

CAVANAUGH: I see, I zoo see.

GHORPADE: The information is very sparse in the newspapers about what exactly is that issue. There's talk about a 90-day a month charge for families. I don't know what that means. It doesn't seem like a lot. If you add it up for the year it comes up to a thousand dollars for the year temperature doesn't sound a great deal to me. But there must be more to it than I can figure out.

CAVANAUGH: I think there's probably a lot going on that we outside of that negotiating room can't figure out right now.


CAVANAUGH: One thing I wanted to ask you, I know that Albertson's is actually advising for temporary workers in case there's a strike. That has to heighten tensions. Is that a productive tactic?

GHORPADE: It's a well-established tactic. I don't know if it's productive or not, but it's been going on since the very beginning of laborer unions so people understand it. They understand the rules, and it works on both sides in the sense that the employees manage to get temporary employees to do their work for them. Most of the time, it works reasonably well, sometimes it doesn't. So it's an established procedure. So I don't see any -- anything new about it.

CAVANAUGH: As a professor emeritus of management, members of the jury management, you have been following these negotiations and this laborer dispute in the newspapers for many months now. What would you recommend either side have done differently in all of this?

GHORPADE: Well, can I diverge just a little if you don't mind?


GHORPADE: I'll try to be brief. It's a question of who should provide benefits. Somewhere along the way, the decision was made that the employee some provide the benefits. Unlike in European nations where the government provides benefits. It was decided in this country that the employer decides benefits. If that is the case and that's going to continue, then the employers and employees have to get together and have some understanding of what that means as to what the scope of the responsibility of the employee is versus the employer is. It doesn't seem right in today's world for employ employers to foot the whole bill for the employee. On the other hand, it doesn't seem right to put the entire burden on the employee either. Somewhere along the way, there's got to be a balance between the two. And I'm not sure exactly what that balance is. But I'm sure the employees could probably contribute more than they have, and employers could probably do more in terms of thinking in a long-term perspective on it.

CAVANAUGH: When I spoke with the union president a couple of weeks ago, Mickey Casparian, I asked him whether or not he thought the union was taking a risk in going on strike. And he said yes, that would be a risky move in this day and age with this economy. Would you agree with that?

GHORPADE: Historically, it has not been much of a big deal, you know? People are used to strikes. People change their shopping habits, there's a certain proportion of the population that sympathizes with unions, so they'll go shop at trader Joe's or some other place. There's a certain proportion of the population that is hostile to unions. So that's -- I think there's always a shot of loss for both parties involved. The reports show that the grocery stores lost something like $1†billion in the last strike. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it seemed like a lot of money.


GHORPADE: And I'm sure the workers lost a lot of money also. This is an assertion of rights, that unless this is done, one side will rule over the other. The employees have to take a stand, and so do the unions from time to time.

CAVANAUGH: As you say, both sides are redefining what -- healthcare benefits in this new day and age we find ourselves in. These negotiations are continuing. I'm going to ask you very briefly to look into your crystal ball. Do you think there's likelihood these issues will be resolved and we will not have a strike?

GHORPADE: That's a possibility. That is a possibility. Yes, I think that's a possibility, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, then we're going to have to leave it there. I've been speaking with San Diego state university management professor emeritus, Doctor Jai Ghorpade. And thank you so much.


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