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SAN DIEGO -- Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Southern California Grocery Workers union voted Sunday to authorize union officials to call a strike against Albertsons across Southern California, a union spokesman said yesterday. The vote did not set a date for a strike, and the union and storeowners are still working with a mediator to hash out their differences.
Three-year contracts covering 65,000 workers at Southern California's three main grocery chains -- Supervalu, Inc.'s Albertons, Kroger Co.'s Ralph's, and Safeway, Inc.'s Vons -- are currently set to expire April 9.
The mounting tension between the two sides calls to mind the four-month grocery workers' strike and lockout in late 2003 and early 2004 that analysts estimated cost $1 billion in lost sales.
At issue for the union this time around is a two-tier wage system that was agreed to after the strike in 2003. The union wants to eliminate the wage system, which stipulates that new hires get paid less and have to work longer to qualify for benefits.
The union has said it selected Albertsons for a strike vote because it's the company with which it has had the most contract talks, and because the newly acquired chain (now owned by Supervalu) is considered more vulnerable, according to published reports. Albertsons reportedly has 22,000 UFCW workers at 249 stores in the region.
In related news, the UFCW in California said Sunday it will file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Albertsons, accusing the supermarket chain of carrying out a campaign to intimidate at least a dozen union workers ahead of the strike authorization vote.
Union officials claim that Albertsons violated federal labor rules by forcing employees to watch and discuss anti-union videos, sending home union activists who discussed the strike vote with workers, and asking employees if they support the strike authorization.
Albertsons spokeswoman Stephanie Martin said the company took lawful measures to ensure that its employees were "as informed as possible to make a decision that best benefits themselves and their families."
"Albertsons believes that it is irresponsible for the UFCW locals to frighten our employees and alarm our customers with a strike vote when we should be focusing our efforts at the bargaining table," Martin said in a statement.
"We believe a mutually beneficial contract is achievable, but it requires all parties coming to the table in good faith."