LOS ANGELES (CNS) – A three-year-old labor contract between unionized grocery store workers and Southern California supermarkets expired at midnight Monday, raising fears of a possible strike, but negotiations were expected to continue in hopes of averting a walkout.

Contract negotiations between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770 and Southern California’s major supermarkets broke down over the weekend. The existing contract expired at midnight, but union members were continuing to work under the terms of the pact.

Supermarket workers picketed stores in Baldwin Hills and Tustin last week while the union and supermarkets were in negotiations.

The union posted a message on Twitter saying that despite the failure to reach an agreement, the terms and conditions of the previous contract are still in effect.

“When we began negotiations with Ralphs and Albertsons/Vons/Pavilions in January, we came prepared with comprehensive proposals and a clear path toward negotiating a contract that reflects your value and the sacrifices you have made,” the union said in a series of tweets to its members. “We are disheartened to inform you that Ralphs and Albertsons/Vons/Pavilions squandered the unique opportunity to propose a contract with better wages and benefits in a time of immense profit. They have failed.”

Ralphs issued a statement saying its stores will remain open and staffed even though the labor contract expired.

“It’s unfortunate that substantial progress toward reaching an agreement was not made during our 12 total days of bargaining with the union,” said Robert Branton, vice president of operations at Ralphs. “While the company made several wage proposals, the union continues to propose very costly items which impacts our ability to meet customer needs and remain competitive.”

According to Ralphs, it is open to meeting with union leaders to reach a deal that provides:

  • more money for every associate;
  • affordable groceries for customers; and
  • a sustainable business model.

Members of the UFCW Local 770 work at Albertsons, Gelson’s, Pavilions, Ralphs, Stater Bros., and Vons stores in Southern California.

“Negotiations are a process and we’re committed to reaching an agreement no matter how long it takes,” Branton said in a statement. “We are hopeful the union will return to the bargaining table with renewed interest in reaching a balanced agreement.”

According to the union, its various locals are preparing strike-authorizations votes, but there was no immediate word on when such votes might be held.

In 2003-04, Southland grocery store workers walked off the job over a contract dispute, and the strike lasted 141 days. That work stoppage was estimated by some analysts to have cost the supermarket chains as much as $2 billion, with the workers losing $300 million in wages.

During the last round of negotiations in 2019, grocery workers voted to authorize a strike but negotiations continued for two months, and a labor deal was eventually reached, averting a walkout.

Union officials said that the agreement included wage increases of $1.55 and $1.65 per hour depending on job classification, with pay retroactive to the date the previous contract expired. Union officials said the pact also included more guaranteed work hours for veteran workers, improvements in health care coverage for employees and their families, full pension funding and the start of a movement to close “the wage gap between job classifications.”

The union represents more than 40,000 workers at more than 500 stores from Central California and the Mexican border.

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