Union Charges Albertsons With Worker Intimidation

LOS ANGELES The United Food and Commercial Workers Union filed three complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Albertsons last week, charging that the company sought to intimidate its employees as they were preparing to consider a strike authorization vote in Southern California. Albertsons, owned by Minneapolis-based Supervalu, said what it did was lawful and was designed to encourage

LOS ANGELES — The United Food and Commercial Workers Union filed three complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Albertsons last week, charging that the company sought to intimidate its employees as they were preparing to consider a strike authorization vote in Southern California.

Albertsons, owned by Minneapolis-based Supervalu, said what it did was lawful and was designed to encourage workers to become better informed before they cast a vote.

The filing of the complaints at the NLRB offices here came three days after Albertsons employees voted to authorize negotiators to call a strike if they deem it necessary. However, with the current contract extended through April 9 and a strike call requiring 72 hours' notice, any such action could probably not occur until April 13 at the earliest, union officials said.

The vote on whether to authorize a strike was “overwhelmingly” in favor, union officials here said. Although they did not release specific vote totals, one union member said the favorable vote far exceeded the 66% level required for approval.

The union said it has not scheduled strike authorization votes for employees at Kroger-owned Ralphs or Safeway-owned Vons — the other two chains with whom seven Southern California locals of the UFCW are meeting to negotiate new contracts to replace the agreement that expired March 5.

The NLRB complaints allege that Albertsons forced employees to watch anti-union videos under the threat of dismissal or discipline; interrogated them about how they would vote and kept a record of their responses; and sent known union activists home before their shifts started, thereby violating their free speech rights.

In a written statement before the complaints were filed, Albertsons said the actions it took “are lawful activities under the National Labor Relations Act, such as encouraging our associates to ask questions, get the correct facts and know they have the right to vote for or against a strike authorization. We believe the union's alleged unfair labor practices charges are devoid of any factual or legal merit.”

The statement also said Albertsons believes the strike authorization vote “is not in the best interests of the employees or our ongoing negotiations.”

Union spokesman Michael Shimpock said the UFCW hopes the NLRB will review the charges quickly “so we can get a hearing and maybe sanctions that would keep the other chains [Ralphs and Vons] from acting in a similar fashion.”

Last week's vote by Albertsons employees authorizes the union leadership to call a strike if and when it reaches an impasse at the negotiating table and after the employers have presented their “last, best and final offer,” Shimpock explained.

“We don't want to strike, because we know how traumatic that can be for the community and our members,” he explained, “but we took this step to get the employers to bargain seriously with us.

“We want to achieve a fair contract, and as long as negotiations are progressing, we will do whatever is necessary at the bargaining table.”

What the union would like to see, Shimpock said, is a contract with Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons that gives all employees the same terms as the contract signed in February by Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif.

In that agreement, Stater said it would eliminate the second-tier wage scale and would increase its contributions to the health and welfare trust find. Second-tier employees are those hired under the just-expired contract, while first-tier employees are those in place before the last contract was signed in 2004.

Gelson's Markets, Encino, Calif., has also signed an agreement with the union that not only eliminates the second tier but also pays a higher wage than Stater and guarantees that 60% of its workforce will be full-time, Shimpock noted. The Gelson's agreement also eliminates backfills on promotions, guaranteeing that when an employee moves into a higher pay classification, he will begin getting the new wages immediately rather than backfilling the hours needed to move up.

‘WILLING TO COMPROMISE’

“The employers know the two-tier wage system is not working, and they know they're going to have to reach some compromise with the union,” Shimpock said. “We're willing to compromise. We don't want to bankrupt the markets. But they need to stop delaying.”

He said the strike authorization vote was taken only by Albertsons employees “because we have been negotiating with Albertsons the longest — we gave them our proposals on Jan. 17, whereas we've been talking with Ralphs and Vons since early February.”

Although the seven UFCW locals are negotiating separately with each chain, a strike against one could still result in a lockout by the others, he explained. That's what happened in 2003, when the chains were negotiating as a single bargaining unit; the union struck Vons and was locked out of Ralphs and Albertsons.