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Supermarkets revisit contract controversy

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Supermarket union contract renewal time is quickly approaching for three major Southern California stores, as unpleasant memories of the 2003-2004 strike run through the minds of both employees and shoppers.

The Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons/Pavilions grocery stores’ current union contracts expire on Monday.

Union and store representatives have agreed to meet and discuss the terms of the future contracts but no date has been set as of yet.

“There is always the possibility of a strike,” Joy Browner, a 17-year-old Albertsons employee.

Union officials would like a new contract before the old one expires, but store officials are not too concerned with the deadline and are more interested in taking their time to agree on the best contract possible.

“If I was planning on working here for the rest of my life, I would be worried about another strike but I’m not,” said Michael Terrones, a University of La Verne graduate student who has worked for Vons for a year.

Despite the deadline disagreement, both sides are hoping to avoid the problems of 2003-2004, which resulted in a five-month strike and the lockout of union employees due to stalled negotiations.  The strike cost the three chains billions of dollars in sales and many customers were slow to return after the dispute.

“I’m afraid of another strike because I would be out of a job,” said Megan Lamb, a freshman history major who has worked a year-and-a-half  at Ralph’s.

The contract negotiations will begin with the discussion of employee responsibility and disciplinary procedures that must be settled before they discuss the key issues: wages, pension and health care.

Union representatives are hoping to establish a contract with Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons/Pavilions similar to one they recently signed with Stater Bros. that eliminates the two-tier system, in which new hires receive significantly lower wages and benefits than veteran employees.

Many believe that the two-tier system has created animosity among employees who are doing the same amount of work for different pay.

“The two-tier system needs to go,” Browner added.

Union representatives would also like to increase store contributions to health care and pension benefits while receiving an increase in Christmas and Memorial Day pay and the number of full-time positions available throughout the contract period.

If no agreements are made by March 5, the union employees will most likely continue working under the old contract until an agreement is reached.

It is quite common for labor contracts to take several days, weeks or even months to be negotiated.

Many students support unions and believe that they benefit members, but grocery store representatives see them a little differently.

“I like the unions. If I was fired unjustly, they would fight to get my job back,” Lamb said.

“I have been extremely disappointed in them since the last strike,” Browner said.

Employees and shoppers will just have to wait to see if the union and store officials can agree on the 2007 contract renewals.

Madison Steff can be reached at msteff@ulv.edu.

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