LOS ANGELES — With the Southern California labor negotiations concluded and a new contract in force, local observers were left to ponder what might have happened had there been a walkout by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
A few days before the contract was finally settled, Supervalu-owned Albertsons and Kroger-owned Ralphs said they might close all or many of their stores if a strike and subsequent lockout occurred. Industry observers told SN they had never heard that kind of threat.
“A strike can be very costly, as the operators in Southern California found out in 2003 and 2004 [when they were involved in a 141-day strike-lockout], and they didn’t want to go through that again,” one observer pointed out. “By closing the stores, they would have eliminated all labor costs. And the strategy may have been a ploy to make the public bring pressure on the unions to capitulate.”
According to another observer, “Running stores with temporary employees becomes very costly because they don’t always service customers properly. It’s possible the chains’ plan was to close the stores [temporarily] and then bring in non-union management people from their operations in other parts of the country to operate them.” Chain officials declined comment on the reasons for the threatened shutdown. In ratifying a new three-year contract, the seven Southern California locals of the UFCW agreed to compromise on wages in return for a compromise by the employers on health care coverage, Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324, told SN.
He said the new agreement enables the UFCW to maintain its health and welfare package, though all members will now have to pay a weekly premium rather than just those who joined the union after the 2003-2004 strike-lockout. While the basic benefits will not change, the plan will reward members who strive to live healthier lifestyles, he said, by losing weight or giving up smoking, for example.
On wages, Conger said the union “settled” for a 25-cent hourly bonus for journeyman clerks in the first year; a 25-cent hourly hike in the second year; and 30 cents in the third year. The new contracts cover 62,000 clerks and meat cutters at Albertsons, Ralphs and Safeway-owned Vons, through March 3, 2014.
UFCW members at Stater Bros. Markets and Gelson’s, who negotiated separately from the three major chains, are expected to ratify similar agreements.
Following the union’s ratification announcement, Ralphs issued a statement that said, “Ralphs is glad the contract has been ratified, and we look forward to doing what our great people do best — serve our customers.” Neither Albertsons nor Vons issued a statement.