Local 135 President Todd Walters said:
UFCW Local 135 President Todd Walters said: “At some point … if we think this negotiation process is not really moving like it should, then the decision can be made to pull the trigger.” Photo by Ken Stone

Bruce “Todd” Walters sounded like a boastful coach Tuesday after 97 percent of participating Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons employees voted to authorize their union to call a strike if needed.

“The members – they kicked butt yesterday,” said Walters, president of the San Diego and Imperial Counties branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “I’m very proud of them. I’m proud of Local 135.

At three sessions Monday, active members of the collective bargaining unit heard Walters and his Mission Valley-based staff detail what they called stalling tactics by the grocery companies since March.

Handouts to Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs employees at UFCW Local 135 voting. (PDF)

“We’ve done 17 negotiating sessions so far,” Walters said of talks involving seven Southern California UFCW locals, “and [had] three tentative agreements on minor issues. Stuff we shouldn’t be wasting more than 15 minutes time on.”

Final numbers weren’t available Tuesday night since members of Los Angeles-based Local 770 were voting up until 8 p.m. But Walters was expecting an announcement Wednesday morning that the locals had been handed the power to call a walkout of tens of thousands of grocery workers.

That news arrived before 9 a.m. when Buena Park-based UFCW Local 324 President Greg Conger confirmed that 96% of unionized workers at all four chains (including Pavilions, an upscale version of Vons) voted in favor of a strike.

“The chains’ bargainers at the table don’t care about what the employees think, and the employees are angry,” Conger told the Press-Enterprise of Riverside. “The chains just want to save as much money as possible.”

In San Diego, Walters added: “The members were positive. They understood the need that we have to take action. When we talk to the members, they weren’t happy with what was being [put] on the table, and the frustration came through.”

A spokesman for Kroger, which owns Ralphs, told Times of San Diego: “This authorization does not mean a strike will occur — it gives the union the authority to call a strike, if needed. It is business as usual in all Ralphs stores and our amazing associates continue to take great care of our customers, our company and each other. We’ll continue to negotiate in good faith for an agreement that is fair for our associates, as well as our company.”

John Votava, the spokesman, said updates would be at ralphscba.com.

At 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, the latest update was June 11, when the company said: “We made very little progress this week. We continued to discuss several language items but failed to come to an agreement on them. We still need to work through wages, health care and pension. We continue to share with the union that our total compensation package either currently meets or exceeds that of your peers in this market.”

(Votava on Monday told the Press-Enterprise that Ralphs “has a contingency plan in place to ensure our stores remain open” should a strike take place.)

A representative of Albertsons and sister company Vons didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walters, taking part in his first talks as president since ousting Mickey Kasparian in December, pointed to a lack of progress on employers’ contributions to the health care trust fund.

“We haven’t raised the contribution rates on health care in six years,” Walters said in a phone interview. “So we need a small amount — 15 cents an hour or something. And every day they delay these negotiations they’re delaying that increase in contributions amount.”

The delay, he said, is putting members’ health care in jeopardy “because the longer you go — at some point it’s not funded right.”

In fact, handouts distributed at Monday’s voting at the Scottish Rite Center next to Local 135 headquarters said the companies’ offer “critically weakens your health benefit fund by refusing to pay the amount required to fully protect medical, dental, vision, chiropractic benefits, creating a risk of benefit cuts and a deficit going into negotiations in 2022.”

Also hearing this were Local 135 members who work at Gelson’s Markets, Stater Bros. and Keil’s — plus some retirees, because their health care hinges on the Albertsons-Vons-Ralphs “food trust.” Their contract comes up after the current talks are over.

(The full name is the UFCW Food Employers Joint Trust Fund or Southern California United Food & Commercial Workers Unions and Food Employers Joint Benefit Fund.)

Walters says he’s “mortified” that talks may stretch into August — after sessions July 10-12 and another three-day meeting starting July 30.

“At some point … if we think this negotiation process is not really moving like it should, then the decision can be made to pull the trigger,” he said. “We want to negotiate a contract, not a strike.”

Although some media reports said 60,000 workers would be affected, Walters said the actual figure is smaller. Local 135 — the fourth-biggest local in the region — has about 12,500 members, but only about 7,000 work at the affected grocery companies.

Now that “we have that vote,” he said, “we’re going to go back to the table in earnest, trying to get a deal.”

He hopes not to see more proposals about “stupid stuff — transferring stewards and things like that” without “substance.”

“If we’re going to sit down, let’s talk about the wages, the health care, the pension. Important things,” he said.

How would a strike be decided?

Walters said it would come after discussions involving all the locals in the negotiating room — and only via unanimous verdict.

“Everything we do, we want to do in unison,” he said. “It’s important for the unions to be united and all together.”

Such unity was palpable at Monday’s “awesome” meetings, he said, including the 6 p.m. session where nearly all 800 seats were occupied.

Local 135 staffers were introduced to enthusiastic applause, he said — although “that wasn’t the intent.”

Also getting a rise was Keith Maddox, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council.

“He reminds me of a Southern pastor, a preacher,” said an “acting kind of reserved” Walters. But the Maddox oration wasn’t essential. “These folks were primed and ready.”

“I don’t want to manipulate people like the other guy used to,” Walters said, referring to 15-year president Kasparian. “We explained the details, but we didn’t have to tell them: ‘Hey, you’re being manipulated.’ They were all over it.”

The staff went through the fact sheets line-by-line, Walters said.

“At the conclusion of that, we let them vote,” he said. “A lot of members had to go to work (or home). We were respectful of their time.”

The vote authorizing a strike hinged on the belief the companies were “playing the old stall tactics,” which “really pushed people over the edge a little bit.”

The 52-year-old Vistan — a former Local 135 grievance director until Kasparian fired him — conceded that “it’s really scary” to be involved in talks that could lead to the first major grocery strike since 2004.

“But the members were really enthusiastic and happy to have this transparency,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about it. If it’s bad news, it’s bad news and we deal with it…. It’s their call.”

Updated at 9:30 a.m. June 26, 2019