Grocery workers pack the sidewalk near a Tustin Ralphs on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Courtesy photo.

Over 300 grocery store workers and supporters gathered outside a Ralphs store in Tustin on Monday to demand higher wages and increased staffing amid contract negotiations that impact more than 60,000 workers, including hundreds in Long Beach, according to union leaders.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union locals 8GS, 135, 324, 770, 1167, 1428 and 1442 represent the thousands of workers at Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions, Albertsons, Stater Bros. and Gelson’s stores across Southern California. Local 324 represents about 1,000 workers at 12 Long Beach stores, spokeswoman Priscilla McDermott said in an email to the Business Journal.

“Grocery workers have always been essential, but the pandemic truly brought to light how critical their labor is for the survival of our communities,” Local 324 President Andrea Zinder said in a press release.

Contract negotiations have already begun and will continue throughout the week ahead of the March 6 expiration date of the current agreement. In addition to higher wages and increased staffing, workers are demanding improved safety and security, and more stable and predictable scheduling.

“Workers need fair wages and enough hours to take care of their families and save for the future, improved medical benefits so workers can stay healthy, and increased safety and security standards so they can be safe on the job,” Zinder said. “It’s time for grocery employers to recognize the great demands put on workers during the past two years and step up to give them the fair contracts they deserve.”

Kroger, one of the prominent grocers in the Long Beach area operating multiple Ralphs locations in the city, is “committed to” providing its “industry-leading” total compensation package that totals $25 per hour if health care and pension are included, according to spokesman John Votava.

The union has eight additional rallies planned this week at grocery stores across the region.

Negotiations between the grocers and unions made positive progress during last week’s meetings, Votava said in an email to the Business Journal, and will continue this week.

“We want to reach an agreement with the Southern California Locals that is a win for everyone,” Votava said. “When we work together, we win together.”

Votava noted that more than half of Kroger’s 17,000 bargaining unit associates in the region have been with the company for more than a decade, which indicates the jobs the company provides are “good, stable jobs.” As for the claim that stores are understaffed, Votava said grocery stores across the nation are trying to keep up with attrition “due to the Great Resignation.”

Grocery worker schedules at the city’s Ralphs locations are given two weeks in advance, Votava added, “to help [workers] prepare for upcoming shifts and to accommodate for flexibility when it’s needed most.”

Grocery workers and supporters rally outside a Tustin Ralphs Monday, Feb. 28, demanding increased pay and staffing amid contract negotiations. Courtesy photo.

But union leaders and workers are citing soaring profits throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as the basis for its demands. Kroger, for example, reported $4.1 billion in operating profits in 2020, up from $3 billion in 2019.

Despite record sales, the company shuttered several stores in California and Washington, including two in Long Beach, in response to hero pay ordinances requiring additional hourly wages during the pandemic. Kroger stated the stores were underperforming prior to the pandemic and that the cities’ actions forced their hand.

After a slight decrease in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period the year before, Krogers sales continued trending up. During the first three quarters of the year, Kroger reported nearly $3.3 billion in profits compared to nearly $3.22 billion during the same time period in 2020.

In January, a report released by Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit research organization, claimed nearly two-thirds of Kroger employees in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington do not make enough money to pay for basic monthly expenses. Kroger denied the claim, calling the report “misleading.”

“The many struggles workers face were brought to light during the pandemic, but we have always, and will always be, frontline workers who put our health and safety on the line every day,” Crystal Eilerts, an Albertsons worker in Santa Ana, said in a press release. “People will always need food for their families. This contract we are fighting for means more to all of us than ever before because we are calling for improvements in safety to be prepared for the next health crisis and to be able to feel valued for our work.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.

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