January 11

Grocery strike not on the list

first_imgLess than two weeks before an employee contract expires with several of California’s major grocery chains, the mood that led to a strike and picket lines three years ago has not emerged. While an agreement before March 5 for the 70,000 workers is unlikely, experts and insiders said they expect talks to continue. “Last time around it was very confrontational, a lot of spear-rattling,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “I don’t hear that now.” Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons have been open to discussion, said Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770, but striking is not out of the question. But chain executives said that is a key sticking point. “Tier two is a great way to protect those veteran associates that we so much appreciate, and still have a competitive wage and health proposal for new hires,” Pete Van Helden, an executive at SuperValu, which owns Albertsons, said during a conference call Friday. “It’s been a great solution.” Multitier systems are common, said David Hirz, president of Ralphs. “Looking at the 31 largest markets, 28 have some form of second-tier contracts,” he said. “And those have been in place more than 20 years.” If previous negotiations are any indication, reaching an agreement could take months. Safeway, which owns Vons, has not agreed to a new labor deal before the contract expired in 19 of its past 20 negotiations. On average, talks to reach a deal have taken seven extra months. When the contract expires, workers have several options. They can take a strike-authorization vote that, if approved, would allow them to strike at any time. They also could work without a contract or agree to extend the current contract. A strike-authorization vote has not been taken, nor has a date been set for a vote. A meeting between Local 770 and the chains is scheduled for early next week, Icaza said. During the 2003-04 strike, local and state officials got involved, but that is unlikely now unless a strike drags on, according to political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu ez, D-Los Angeles, have a long history of involvement with Los Angeles labor, but their smartest move might be to get involved as mediators, not advocates, Jeffe said. Talks could be drawn out by a decision made by the seven unions to negotiate with each of the three chains separately, a change from collective bargaining in 2004. Unions made the switch because employers abused the system last time, Icaza said, referring to charges that allege Ralphs illegally rehired employees after a lockout. During the 139-day strike in 2003 and 2004, the largest in the nation’s history, the chains lost an estimated $2 billion. Many workers never recovered from lost wages. A strike would not be in the chains’ best interest because competition is stiff from specialty food stores, wholesalers and small independent markets, said Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com in Santa Monica. During the strike, the chains lost customers who never came back. Staff Writer Harrison Sheppard contributed to this report. [email protected] (818) 713-3735160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “As opposed to last time, it was take it or leave it when the employers made a proposal and literally we couldn’t give any input,” Icaza said. “This time, there have been some discussions.” Neither side has exchanged formal proposals on the major issues of health care and wages. Meetings since mid-January have covered minor items such as weekly schedules and which employees can stock certain products. Hashing out the major issues means agreeing to keep or toss out a two-tier system under which veteran workers have a different pay scale and health benefits than new workers. There is some pressure to abolish the tiered system, as grocery chain Stater Bros. has done. Another chain, Gelson’s, is set to get rid of the system as well. “If Stater Bros. can do it, they can, too,” Icaza said of the three major chains. “If Gelson’s can do it, they can do it.” last_img read more