The contentious 15-day strike against Atlanta-based United Parcel Service this summer slowed many businesses to a halt.
But in the food industry, early settlements, fast resolutions and perhaps a greater understanding between labor and management seem to have prevailed in 1997.
One industry observer hailed the present climate as having "the most harmonious labor relations in food-retailing history."
Last month at Giant Food, Landover, Md., Teamsters at two warehouses approved a new contract that afforded them job more security. Union leaders said that same issue had sparked a crippling five-week truck driver strike about a year ago.
In northern California this year, several United Food and Commercial Workers Union locals approved contracts with some 200 Safeway and Lucky Stores units -- months before their current contracts were to expire. Two years ago, the same region was hit with a walkout by about 35,000 supermarket employees.
"I think we both, labor and management, decided we did not want a repeat of 1995," Sean Harrigan, UFCW northern California regional director, told SN at the time. "Both sides approached these early discussions in a more rational way."
Management and labor representatives told SN that the early settlement route was a 'win-win' situation for both sides.
Securities analysts told SN that labor unions have gained some clout in their dealings with supermarket chains. Tight labor markets in many regions of the country, where unemployment is as low as 2% or 3%, mandate going the extra step to keep talented associates.
In addition, they said, there is pressure on profitable companies to "give back" to union members who took cutbacks in leaner times in order to make the chains more competitive. Unions are also using lawsuits to fight management and stay on the job at the same time. (See related story, Page 13.)
However, unlike more consolidated industries, observers said the fragmented food retailing business prevents the unions from gaining the type of control UPS workers have over the shipping industry.
Still, the eagerness of both sides to avoid repeats of work stoppages helped resolve contracts at Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore.; Schnuck Markets, St. Louis; Acme Markets, Malvern, Pa.; Edwards Super Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa.; Food Town, Edison, N.J.; Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J.; Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J.; ShopRite Supermarkets, Elizabeth, N.J.; and A&P, Montvale, N.J., along with its subsidiary, Super Fresh Markets. Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., faced its first ever strike, but resolved it in less than two days.
The main issues this year were job security, health and welfare, and pensions, sources told SN. Wages and benefits for part-time employees was also a hot issue throughout the country.
The worst strike in North America took place this Spring at 74 Canada Safeway stores in Alberta, where 10,000 UFCW members walked out over a wage dispute. The 75-day strike cost the company over $142 million ($200 million Canadian), observers estimated.
At King Kullen Grocery Co., Westbury, N.Y., about 112 warehouse workers were affected when the company outsourced its grocery distribution to Bozzuto's, a nonunion firm based in Cheshire, Conn. Workers and their supporters picketed King Kullen for 15 weeks until the two sides could reach an agreement about a severance package earlier this month.
Key Food, Brooklyn, N.Y., had planned to close two Brooklyn warehouses early this year and move its distribution operations to Elizabeth, N.J. But members of the Bakery and Pastry Drivers and Helpers Union Local 802 ratified a new contract that kept one facility -- the grocery warehouse -- open, while only the perishables operation moved to New Jersey.
In Connecticut, Local 371 continued its efforts to organize workers at Stew Leonard's Dairy Store in Norwalk. Local 371 also filed a complaint with the NLRB against Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., alleging the chain discriminated against union members when it staffed five stores it had acquired from Edwards.