Progress towards a new labor contract between unions and three Southern California supermarket chains is moving at a glacial pace, but the rhetoric is heating up over the main sticking point – health care.
A Vons grocery chain spokesman on Tuesday characterized the unions’ health care benefit proposal as “unrealistic,” while a San Diego union leader said the grocery stores’ claim that half of the union workers don’t contribute to their health benefit package is “a blatant lie.”
The war of words played out as the United Food & Commercial Workers union staged rallies Tuesday at the Los Angeles district headquarters of Vons, and the Orange County district headquarters of Albertsons and Ralphs.
The contract between the unions and the grocery workers expired in March, and the 62,000 grocery store workers covered by the union approved a strike on April 21. Both sides say they want to avoid the kind of devastating lockout that occurred in 2003.
But both sides also said they are making almost no progress on the issue of health care.
Daymond Rice, a spokesman for Vons, said a counter-proposal delivered by the union Monday is “very disappointing.”
“It doesn’t address the core issues related to the escalating cost of health care, and it proposed improvements to the health care benefits,” said Rice. “We think that improvements in this economic time are unrealistic.”
The grocery stores said the initial proposal they made six weeks ago provides for employee contributions of $9 a week for single coverage and $23 a week for full family coverage.
Currently, about half of the union workers — those hired before March 2004 — pay no weekly contribution for health care, and have a good health benefit package, the stores said in a joint statement Tuesday. Employees hired after March 2004 pay $7 a week for single health care coverage and $15 a week for full-family coverage, the stores said.
Rice declined to discuss further specifics. But a source close to the negotiations said the stores “think it’s time that the workers who pay nothing become part of the system and begin to pay something.”
Mickey Kasparian, president of the UFCW Local 135, said the grocery stores’ claim that some workers pay no weekly contribution toward health care benefits is “a blatant lie.”
Kasparian said labor contracts aren’t negotiated in terms of premiums but a total dollar amount that is taken out of workers wages and doled out to different benefit pots. Currently, full-time grocery store workers pay $3.50 out of their hourly wage – or $600 a month – toward health and welfare benefits, he said.
“Workers are paying $600 a month out of their wages, now the grocery stores want to add additional $23 a week and cut our (medical) benefits in half,” said Kasparian. “In our view, that is a rip off.
“Right now, we are closer to a strike than a deal,” said Kasparian. “The clock is really ticking.”
The grocery stores and the unions have agreed to a series of additional bargaining dates into July.
San Diego labor leaders support possible strike.