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Possible Grocery Strikes Loom in Southern California

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Three of Southern California's largest grocery chains face a possible strike by seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers when their contracts expire on Oct. 5, according to local reports.

Two union spokeswomen told the Long Beach Press Telegram that the two sides are far apart, with one saying Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons appear to want a work stoppage.

Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon said the company is "cautiously optimistic" about a settlement, but said the unions need to realize the retail landscape has changed a great deal.

One change that concerns the chains is the plan by Wal-Mart to open 40 of its Supercenters with full-service groceries in California in the next four years.

Calderon noted that non-union chains such as Wal-Mart pay much less than companies like Vons do.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers say the average grocery worker makes $10.35 an hour nationally, while the average unionized worker makes nearly $14.

A union spokeswoman admitted that cashiers, for instance, earn $17.90 an hour after two years, do not contribute to health insurance and have a pension plan funded by the company.

"They are trying now to get employees to make a $1,300 annual copayment for insurance," she said, "and also switch to a 401(k) plan to which the company would contribute $1.08 per hour worked."

The last strike against Southern California supermarkets was in 1978, but union leaders say they have ordered picket signs and other materials and all three chains have been advertising for temporary workers.

If the union strikes, pickets will ask customers to shop at Stater Bros., Gelson's, Food 4 Less and other union companies that are not on strike, according to the report.
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