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Tension Builds Between California Grocery Workers and Companies as Union Authorize the Strike

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The grocery workers of California have voted in overwhelming numbers to authorize a strike as the contract renewal process approaches, should their demands of wage increases and better working conditions not be met.

Grocery workers from stores owned by Kroger Co. and Albertsons, including Vons, Ralphs and Pavilions, are renewing their contracts after the March 6 expiration deadline. On March 27, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced the strike authorization voted on by workers in stores stretching from central California to the Mexican Border — with a significant majority of a 95% approval rate. 

Negotiations had been ongoing since January, with the main point of contention being the request for more pay. The union proposed a raise adjustment of $5-per-hour by the end of three years’ time to accommodate for inflation and economic hardship in a post-pandemic world. Corporations counter offered a 60 cent hourly wage increase, which was “shockingly low” and well below the cost of living, according to the union. Other demands such as improving worker safety and guaranteeing minimum staffing were also rejected by the companies. 

“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 stated. “The corporations representing the stores offered pennies, a proposal that would ultimately be a pay cut due to inflation.”

The pandemic is an essential aspect of the ongoing conflict. According to the LA Times, the pandemic had boosted the sales revenues of supermarkets with its restraint on the restaurant industry, allowing companies like Kroger to collect their biggest pay packages ever and pay out $1.3 billion to investors. On the other hand, the Kroger employees had been shown in a survey to be facing issues of homelessness, eviction and food insecurity. 

“Rodney McMullen [the Chief Executive of Kroger] can afford helicopters and yachts, and I will be homeless when my parents die,” one Kroger clerk wrote.

While the authorization vote does not indicate the certainty of an upcoming strike, it puts pressure on the companies during the negotiation process. Meanwhile, the companies are preparing for the potential strike, which can be seen when Ralphs began hiring temporary workers.

“The outcome of the strike authorization vote does not change anything related to this process,” Albertsons stated. “We remain committed to negotiating a contract that is fair to all parties.”

However, seizing the special dynamics of a post-pandemic world, the workers are determined to make a change.

Marco Escalante, a 46-year-old worker at Vons, talked about the mean wage increases throughout the past decades going unnoticed until the pandemic.

“Our members got sick and took it home,” Escalante said in an interview with the LA Times. “Customers were throwing fits at the stores. And the companies were saying you only have so many sick days so you have to come to work. They’ve shown no empathy for our sacrifices.”

“We know they’ve made billions in profits and we’re not afraid to go out,” he added. “There’s a big change coming.” 

Ellie Zhang is a City News Staff Writer. She can be reached at yitangz@uci.edu.