Northern California Labor Rallies As Contract Talks Near

SALINAS, Calif. - A rally in support of Bay Area grocery employees whose contract expires Sept. 11 took place Monday afternoon at the Salinas Sports Complex Rodeo Room here, with local elected officials in attendance, including Santa Cruz mayor Scott Kennedy, who plans to introduce a resolution supporting grocery workers at the Sept. 14 Santa Cruz City Council meeting. Local community and religious leaders were also present.

Following the rally and press conference, the organizers staged a demonstration in front of a local Safeway store, where customers were asked to sign pledge cards backing grocery workers. Safeway and Albertsons are the biggest grocers in the Bay Area.

The rally was organized by the UFCW Bay Area Coalition, which on its Web site describes itself as "a collection of the eight UFCW locals representing more than 30,000 grocery workers from Salinas in the South to the Oregon border in the North."

The coalition is concerned that the large grocery chains might attempt to shift health care costs to their employees as part of new agreements."All our membership currently has health insurance, and we see no reason for that to change," coalition coordinator Jim Grogan told Progressive Grocer.

Under the two-tier system accepted by Southern California grocery workers, new hires earn lower wages, must work longer to reach the top pay levels, and must wait longer to become eligible for health benefits than established employees. "In a fight to save health care, the impact on the community is clear," Grogan said, citing figures from a UC Berkeley labor study estimating that, if a similar system is adopted in Northern California, as many as 124,000 employees and family members could be left uninsured, with up to $293 million in health care costs pushed onto taxpayers.

Safeway v.p. public affairs Brian Dowling told Progressive Grocer that the chain's agenda is not in any way about eliminating health care for employees. "We haven't even begun to negotiate the contract yet," Dowling added, but he stressed that any resulting new labor agreements with workers in the region would have to enable "unionized grocery chains to remain competitive going forward." Calls to Albertsons went unanswered.
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