LOS ANGELES -- The 15-week-old Southern California strike-lockout was set to enter a new phase over the weekend as the AFL-CIO was scheduled to join with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in implementing a series of planned demonstrations up and down the West Coast as part of a new national strategy against the three major chains in the fight over health care benefits.
Ron Judd, Western regional director for the AFL-CIO, told SN his organization planned to escalate the Southern California fight over the next few weeks with marches, rallies and other civil actions -- "all respectful and peaceful," he noted -- in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. "Those cities will be part of the first wave, and beyond that, we expect other cities to come on board," he said.
Judd said civil actions were scheduled over the weekend in San Francisco, Oakland and Contra Costa in Northern California and in Seattle at stores, managers' homes, regional chain offices and the offices of members of the boards of directors of Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger.
Similar actions here over the last few days -- including a human chain around a Vons store and a rally outside Vons' Southern California headquarters -- have resulted in several arrests, many of which were reportedly coordinated with police in advance.
Judd denied published reports and a call-to-action on a union Web site that one strategy involves a pray-in outside Burd's home. "But we will leave all options open to get both sides back to the table to negotiate a fair contract," he said.
Judd is one of the two AFL-CIO executives assigned to work with the UFCW to nationalize the labor effort; the other is Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
According to Judd, the strategy behind giving the AFL-CIO an active role in the dispute is to alert and educate shareholders, pension-fund investors, community and religious allies of the unions, and elected officials "to get involved in a very public way" to bring negotiators from the UFCW and chain managements to the bargaining table by convincing them to put pressure on the managements of the three chains to come to a settlement.
"At the end of the day, it's the attitudes of shareholders, investors and Wall Street that will get everyone's brain cells in line so we can settle this fight," Judd said.
"We're continuing to identify potential targets and to put pressure on them where it can help us influence decisions. We'd rather negotiate a fair contract, but at this point, we've gotten no signals from the employers that they are interested in doing so, so we just have to turn the heat up."
Seven UFCW locals in Southern California went on strike against Safeway's Vons and Pavilions stores on Oct. 11, and were locked out of Kroger's Ralphs stores and Albertsons the following day. At issue in the standoff are proposals to make employees pay more of their health care costs and to enable employers to introduce a new wage tier.
Judd told SN the union believes its new national strategy will enable it to set the agenda in the dispute. "Up until now, Steve Burd [chairman, president and chief executive officer,Safeway] has defined the parameters of this struggle, but we can no longer allow him to do that," Judd said.
"He's been leading the strategy to squeeze health care costs, and the CEOs of Kroger and Albertsons have followed him. He's been telling Wall Street for months to stick with him, but Wall Street is now projecting Safeway lost $562 million last year.
"Our message is, $562 million will be nothing compared with what it will cost Safeway when we escalate our efforts. This is not just about Southern California -- this is a national fight."
The AFL-CIO is an amalgam of unions that includes the UFCW, "and after the UFCW's attempts to meet with employers failed, the union came to us and asked us to assist them in developing and implementing a strategy to take this fight to other parts of the U.S. utilizing our central labor councils," Judd explained.
The AFL-CIO met last Wednesday with 40 of its largest CLCs, which represent 70% of the metropolitan areas in the United States, Judd pointed out, "to strategize how to dramatically expand this fight" -- meetings he said led to the scheduling of civil actions over the weekend, with other activities planned for beyond the Western United States in the future, he noted.
"For whatever reason, the traditional strike methods are not working, and the employers are willing to lose as much as they need to starve the workers out. We would like to find a resolution tomorrow. We would rather not do this, but the employers aren't giving us much choice.
"So we will apply pressure, and do what we can as long as we need to do it to get a fair contract," Judd said.