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Grocery Negotiations Resume With Help From Mediator

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Aired 8/30/11

Grocery negotiations are continuing this week with the help of a federal mediator. Union officials are armed with an authorization to strike.

Vons grocery workers and supporters demonstrate on June 28, 2011.
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Above: Vons grocery workers and supporters demonstrate on June 28, 2011.

Negotiations between the union representing Southland grocery workers and the owners of Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons resumed Monday with the help of a federal mediator in hopes of averting a strike.

On Aug. 19-20, an overwhelming majority of Southern California's 62,000 grocery workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union voted to authorized a strike. It was the second time the union membership had taken a strike-authorization vote, with the most recent action taken in response to the latest health-care proposal offered by the grocery chains.

The grocery chains released a statement calling the strike-authorization vote a "common tactic in negotiations" that does not necessarily mean a strike will be called.

"Our employees want to keep working and our stores are ready to serve customers," according to the stores.

Some of the stores have been accepting applications for fill-in workers in case the grocery workers do walk off the job.

San Diego State University marketing professor Miro Copic said a strike is unlikely in this economy, with both sides having a lot to lose.

“With 10.5 percent unemployment, and these retail jobs are more attractive than many other retail jobs -- there are a lot of people in San Diego County that would love to have one of these jobs,” said Copic.

Copic said in a weak economy, shoppers are more likely to cross picket lines. "I think the union realizes that public sympathy is not quite there, and if there’s a way to have a compromise, I think everyone is looking forward to that and hopefully this week they’ll iron one out.

Members of the UFCW union employed at stores from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border have been working without a contract since March 6.

Under the most recent industry offer, workers would pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage. But the union says the insurance fund would not be financially viable and wants the supermarkets to contribute more to prevent it from running out of money within 16 months.

No tentative agreement on wages has been reached.

A 141-day strike in 2003-04, which cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion, led some customers to make long-term changes to their shopping habits by going to independent grocers and specialty outlets. Both sides agreed that they were hurt by the last strike.

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