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Will the UFCW stand up to the grocery giants?

May 11, 2007 | Page 15

UFCW member DARRIN HOOP looks at negotiations in the grocery industry.

THREE YEARS after the 141-day grocery workers strike in Southern California ended in defeat, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is again locked into contract negotiations around the U.S. with the "Big Three" grocery stores: Kroger Co., Safeway Inc., and Supervalu Inc. (which bought Albertsons Inc. last June).

This year, UFCW contracts covering 400,000 grocery workers will expire. Currently, contracts covering over 100,000 workers are being negotiated throughout the U.S. in Toledo, Ohio, Houston, Montana, the Puget Sound region in Washington State and in Southern California.

As was the case in 2004, the contract covering the 65,000 workers in seven Southern California locals will likely set the standard for the rest of the country. That contract implemented a two-tier system, in which wages and health benefits for new hires were significantly less than for the existing workforce.

A study by the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education released in January found that the contract increased waiting periods from four months to 12 months for individual (health care) coverage (18 months for clerks) and 30 months for family coverage. It increased co-pays, co-insurance and deductibles under the new plan, while restricting options."

In addition, Berkeley researchers found that, "In September 2003, prior to the strike, 94 percent of the union grocery workers in Southern California had health coverage through their employer; by September 2006 that number had fallen to 54 percent. Coverage for workers hired under the new contract was a mere 7 percent."

This is a reflection of the fact that 33,000 of the 65,000 workers covered under the contract have been hired in the last three years.

The UFCW continues to surrender ground. On March 11, the 43,000 UFCW members at Stop & Shop in Southern New England ratified a contract that forces full-time workers to pay a portion of their health care premiums, with the largest burden falling on those with families. For new part-time workers, the waiting period for health care benefits was reduced from two years to one year, although current part-time workers must still wait two years to qualify for coverage.

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THE BIG Three companies can afford decent contracts. Between 2003 and 2005, the company's CEOs "earned" a total of $44.4 million--the equivalent of a year's pay of about 1,000 full-time entry-level grocery clerks in one year. In 2006, the total combined corporate profits for the companies were more than $8.3 billion.

The question is: Does the UFCW have a strategy in place to win good contracts? On April 16, the UFCW had press conferences and leafleting outside stores in Southern California, Oregon, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toledo, Ohio and Houston to highlight the union's demands.

Although the UFCW has launched a new national Web site called "Grocery Workers United," very few details about any of the negotiations have been posted. In general, the union hopes to eliminate the two-tier system, raise wages and improve health care benefits.

The Puget Sound contract, which covers 30,000 workers, has been extended from May 5 to June 1, with little mobilization of the membership, despite the creation of Contract Action Teams. According to the UFCW Web site, the only strike authorization votes have been at the seven locals in Southern California representing workers at Supervalu and at Local 8 in Montana, for workers at Albertsons.

The big Southern California contract has been extended twice and now is renewed on a day-to-day basis. Either side can cancel the contract with 72 hours notice. The companies are threatening to lock out all UFCW members at each chain if a strike is initiated against any one of them. They also agreed to "provide financial assistance" to any of the companies targeted by a strike, as they did in 2004.

Three years ago, support for the grocery workers was tremendous. However, the current UFCW leadership under union president Joe Hansen hardly inspires confidence. Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Southern California, said this about the last contract, "We really had no alternative but to accept the settlement," and "If I had to do it all over again, I would have done everything we did last time, which is work to come back another day and try to renegotiate things to recover some of the losses we sustained."

Despite this, the potential to revive solidarity in is real. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said its more than 300 unions and 800,000 members would mobilize for demonstrations, boycotts and food drives to aid any striking workers. Also, grocery workers at Stater Bros. and Gelson's, which control between 12-15 percent of the Southern California grocery market, recently eliminated the two-tier system in their contracts.

It will be up to the UFCW rank and file to push the union leadership to provide more information on the negotiations, to call for mass meetings of union members to discus the contract, to hold rallies to draw on the solidarity of the community, and to take strike authorization votes everywhere. Finally, it most likely will take another round of strikes to reverse the concessions agreed to in the last negotiations.

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