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Unions hard pressed for support in tough economy

The possibility of a strike at grocery stores across the nation in the coming weeks is starting to become a definite reality, and locals are preparing themselves for the worst.

“Rallying is often associated with negativity, and hate, but we are here to bring positive energy and support for people that are just trying to achieve their American dream,” said Nick Parra, a coordinator with MoveOn.org. 

Thursday’s rally came in response to months of negotiations between the union and nearly 62,000 Southern California grocery store employees. After existing contracts expired last March, the 2 groups have struggled to come to a compromise. A major area of dispute involves proposed spikes in employees’ health care plans.

Coordinated by MoveOn.org and Claremont’s local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), union supporters gathered peacefully outside the grocery store, calling for a compromise on unsettled contracts involving Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons employees. 

“These corporations already make big bucks. They need to help their employees make money too. They can’t live and support a family on those wages,” said Julia King, a former union employee and member of MoveOn.org. “There are too many corporations sucking the life out of our democracy.”

 Supporters lined the sidewalk outside of Vons, and marched silently across the grocery store aisles, bearing signs scribbled with “stop the war on workers” and “union workers rock.” Carlos Soto came out from Glendora to hold up a sign and stand behind his fellow grocery store members.

 “I know the hardships [of being on strike],” Mr. Soto said, a former grocery store employee himself for more than 27 years.  “These people work hard to support their families. It’s important to try and save these jobs.”

Grocery store workers voted over the weekend on whether or not to go ahead with a strike.  More than 90 percent of workers voted in favor, according to union officials.

Many locals are finding themselves increasingly frustrated with union workers, and concerned about the idea of another grocery strike. The last time the 2 groups were unable to reach an agreement, in 2003-2004, a 141-day strike ensued at grocery chains throughout Southern California.

“I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy,” said David Ongley, a retired Claremont resident. “There are a lot of people in the unions making good money. There are 12 to 13 percent of people with no jobs.” 

Despite his feelings, Mr. Ongley still plans to forego stepping over picket lines if the grocery stores strike. Antonio Cucciano, however, has no plans to change where he picks up his milk and eggs.

“I like the food here,” Mr. Cucciano stated, adding that the unions are destroying the United States. “In my country, they would cut your hand off if you steal.” 

Merritt Humphrey, the daughter of a former union organizer, agreed with Mr. Cucciano in regards to the poor timing, but added that the union members hands are tied.

“A job is a job, but these people don’t have a choice if the union decides to strike,” Ms. Humphrey said, adding that she has been shopping at this Vons location since 1979. “I love this store, we know all the clerks… I hope people won’t cross the lines.” 

Vote results will be reported to a federal mediator in an attempt to reach a contract on settlements before a potential strike is called. Representatives of workers and management will be resume negotiations beginning Aug. 29, giving both sides time to prepare for bargaining, according to officials. Regardless of the outcome, supporters plan to stand behind their local grocery store clerks. 

“It’s a very stressful time for our grocery store workers,” said Connie Leyva, president of UFCW Local 1478. “Our community is coming together to stand behind them.” 

—Beth Hartnett

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