Roughly forty-eight thousand grocery-store workers across Southern California are preparing for a strike. Their three-year contract, which covers workers at 540 stores, expired on March 6, and on March 27, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced that a strike authorization vote across the seven locals covered under the contract had returned 95 percent of ballots cast in favor of authorizing an unfair labor practice strike. The UFCW has filed claims with the National Labor Relations Board alleging employer intimidation, harassment, surveillance, and illegally influencing workers during negotiations, accusations that the companies deny.
The stores are Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions, and Ralphs, comprising two of the country’s largest supermarket chains — Albertsons owns Vons and Pavilion, while Kroger owns Ralphs. Bargaining has been ongoing since late January, with the two sides meeting today, but workers are now prepared to walk out if need be. Should they walk off the job, it would be the largest strike since the pre-pandemic teachers’ strikes, and the largest private-sector strike since seventy-four thousand UAW members struck General Motors in 2007.
“Bargaining committees composed of front-line grocery workers and union leaders came prepared with proposals that would fairly increase wages and improve store conditions to reflect the needs of workers in a pandemic and post-pandemic world,” the UFCW said in a statement earlier this month. “The corporations representing the stores offered pennies, a proposal that would ultimately be a pay cut due to inflation.”
Wages are a key point of disagreement. The union is pushing for significant wage increases for workers who have kept the stores running through two years of the pandemic, but it says the employers have only offered a 60-cent-per-year hourly increase, amounting to a $1.80-an-hour raise by the end of the contract.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, the union is seeking a $5 hourly raise by the end of the new contract for the highest-paid senior workers — food clerks, which include cashiers and shelf stockers, who comprise around one-third of the workforce and currently make $22.50 an hour after five to seven years at the job. The union seeks to raise wages by $8 an hour by the end of the contract for general merchandising clerks, who currently make a maximum of $17.02 an hour, arguing that they do comparable work to the higher-paid employees. For these workers, the companies have offered a $2-an-hour raise. It is unclear how much the companies will offer for baggers and clerk’s helpers, the lowest-paid third of the workforce, who currently make just above California’s $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Sufficient staffing and more predictable scheduling are other worker priorities, as are health and safety — grocery store staff have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with an estimated 7,709 Local 770 members contracting the illness, and a mass shooting in 2021 at a Kroger-owned King Soopers in Colorado has made safety committees a demand as well. The companies have thus far rejected proposals concerning worker safety and minimum staffing guarantees.
“These companies can either come to the table ready to negotiate a fair deal or we’re going to have to take this fight elsewhere,” Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles and a lead negotiator, told the Los Angeles Times. A strike was also authorized in 2019 during the previous round of contract negotiations, but the two sides reached an agreement without a work stoppage.
Ralphs has responded to the strike threat by attempting to hire temporary workers, vowing to remain open should workers walk off the job. One TikTok user created a script to flood the company’s hiring portal with fake job applications — he told the Los Angeles Times that twenty-five thousand such submissions went through, and the page no longer appears to be active. “It’s disappointing that these failed attempts were aimed at disrupting [a community’s] access to fresh food and essential items,” a Ralphs representative told the paper.
The fight comes at a time when tensions between grocery-store workers and their employers are particularly heightened. Pandemic-era rhetoric casting cashiers as “essential” plays a role in leading workers to fight back for dignity they feel they are denied on the job, and eight thousand UFCW Local 7 members who work at Kroger-owned stores in Colorado just went on strike earlier this year.
Also relevant is a recent report detailing the sorry state of Kroger’s massive workforce. The country’s fourth-largest private employer, Kroger offers such poor wages and benefits that 14 percent of the Kroger employees surveyed for the report have been homeless in the past year, 36 percent worry about eviction, and more than three-quarters meet the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of “food insecure.” The findings are based on a survey of more than ten thousand of the company’s employees, some of them the very workers in Southern California who are preparing to strike.
Even as Kroger’s profits skyrocket — its operating profits nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021 — the company has been particularly unwilling to offer additional pay to the people who staff its stores. When Los Angeles and Long Beach passed ordinances mandating hazard pay for grocery-store workers, the company closed five locations. It claimed these stores were financially unsustainable, but the action had all the markings of a capital strike — an employer preferring to shutter locations entirely rather than hike worker pay. Meanwhile, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen made $22.4 million in 2020.
“Rodney McMullen can afford helicopters and yachts, and I will be homeless when my parents die,” wrote one King Soopers clerk in the recent survey of Kroger workers. Or, as one Vons employee told the Los Angeles Times, “We know they’ve made billions in profits and we’re not afraid to go out. There’s a big change coming.”