Southern California grocery workers win major gains after strike vote show of force

Photo: On April 2, PSL members in Los Angeles joined UFCW workers, staff and community members to prepare UFCW picket signs after the strike authorization

After a powerful show of determination in a strike authorization vote approved with 95% support, United Food and Commercial Workers members across Southern California won a new contract that will better tens of thousands of grocery workers’ lives. Employees at Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons and Pavilions have now acquired significant wage increases, more hours guaranteed for all part-time workers, worker-led store safety committees, healthcare improvements and protected pensions. This is a major victory that was made possible by the collective power of unionized workers and their readiness to strike.

In January 2022, UFCW union leaders began talks with Kroger stores (Ralphs) and Albertsons grocery stores (Albertsons/Vons/Pavilions), raising demands for a new contract setting out better wages and work conditions. This included a $5 hourly wage increase over the three-year contract, more hours and staffing, and improved safety at stores. The stores refused to meet the demands and the workers’ contract expired in March.

Over 47,000 grocery store workers are represented by UFCW locals 8GS, 135, 324, 770, 1167, 1428 and 1442. UFCW 770 reported that during the COVID pandemic, more than 10,000 of its members got infected by COVID. At the same time, stock prices and store profits continued increasing. Despite stores relying on essential workers to generate billions in profits during the pandemic, Ralphs called the union’s proposal unrealistic and expensive. However, the corporate executives didn’t find it unrealistic or expensive to give themselves 34% raises and pay out $250 million to investors. The grocery workers saw through these company lies and demanded better.

In response to the demand of $5 hourly wage, the corporations counter-offered a small 60-cent raise. Across the grocery store giants, the corporate owners of the stores were delaying a contract agreement for three months and were demanding concessions including: cutting top-rate for GM clerks, slashing wages for checkers, wage increases for other workers of only 20 cents (less than 1%), and putting a healthcare plan at risk of bankruptcy.

Speaking with Liberation News, Kathleen Scott, a UFCW member at Albertsons, detailed how workers were constantly overworked and underpaid. When COVID diminished the number of people available to work, the store didn’t hire substitutions and instead forced their existing employees to take on double or triple the labor. Often baggers had to take on the role of cashier without actually being paid as a cashier. The strike vote, she said, was a way of workers telling the company, “we’re not going to do the job of 3 people anymore.”

Scott also described how Albertsons workers were forced to be in-person at the height of the pandemic while the store director rarely went into the store for fear of COVID. Meanwhile roughly one in four grocery workers got COVID. The media often called essential workers “heroes” for risking their lives during the pandemic. Scott’s response is “we were not heroes, we were cannon fodder.” The store extracted huge profits off the backs of grocery workers’ labor who have been suffering with low pay, unsafe working conditions, short staffing, the increased cost of living, expensive healthcare, and high rates of COVID infection.

All across the country, low wages along with high rent and rapidly rising gas and food prices is making it harder and harder for workers to meet their needs. “No matter how hard people work, it’s so hard to still get by,” Scott explained, “Rent might be doable with 4 roommates but you’ll still never buy a house”.

Essentials like food are also becoming increasingly expensive. According to official statistics, food prices increased 7.9 percent between February 2021 and February 2022, which is the largest one-year increase since July 1981. While workers have been struggling during the pandemic, big corporations have been increasing the price of food, keeping wages low, and piling up record profits.

On March 27, UFCW members started to prepare pickets after the 95% strike vote. In solidarity, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor announced they wouldn’t cross picket lines if there was a strike. A week later, UFCW reached a tentative contract agreement with the big store companies. UFCW 770 reported that the newly ratified contract includes significant wage hikes, guaranteed hours for part-time workers, stronger health benefits, improved store safety and a secure pension.

Initially during negotiations, Albertsons refused to sit down with the union on time and often delayed negotiations by hours. After the strike was authorized, the store sat and negotiated for 28 hours.

Grocery workers are not only essential amid the COVID pandemic, they’re essential at all times and deserve to be compensated with a living wage and benefits. Without grocery workers, the corporate executives could not make the grocery stores run. With the workers’ threat to withhold their labor, the union was able to take a stand for the dignity and respect they deserve.

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