A supermarket showdown

Zavi Katzvik reports on the struggle of UFCW members in California and Nevada to defend living conditions for past, present and future workers.

UFCW members on strike outside Raley'sUFCW members on strike outside Raley's

WORKERS AT the Raley's and Nob Hill Foods supermarkets in California and Nevada walked off the job at 6 a.m. on November 4 after 15 months of contract negotiations failed to produce an agreement.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 5 represents the 7,500 workers on strike at more than 100 stores. This is the first strike at Raley's in the company's 77-year history.

According to the union, Raley's management, which also runs the Nob Hill Foods stores, demanded a two-year wage freeze for workers and drastic cuts in benefits. "We're out here because the company basically wants to strip us of our medical benefits when we retire," explained Eddy Silva, a Nob Hill employee for 25 years. "They also want to take away Sunday pay and night premiums, so we'd be making less money."

The new health plan proposed by Raley's could significantly reduce coverage for retirees while increasing premiums for full- and part-time employees. Many workers see Raley's proposal as part of overall strategy to bust the union.

"[Raley's] is trying to take away our union [benefits] so they can put in Raley's Medical and take more out of our pockets," said Jorge Gonzalez, who works in a Nob Hill produce department. "As for the ones who are retired already, they're trying to take it away so they're left with nothing.

Raley's management insists that sacrifices by union members are essential for the "good of the company." The company points to difficult economic times and stiff competition from Wal-Mart as the main reason for downward pressure on wages and benefits.

Raley's CEO Michael Teel claims that the store lost more than $2 million last year, but when the UFCW offered to have accountants review the books, Raley's management refused the proposal.

UFCW Local 5 President Ron Lind explains that the union has done all that it can to work with Raley's management on a compromise agreement:

We are on strike because Raley's last, best and final offer is inadequate...We even offered some temporary concessions during this recession [to be restored] when the economy recovers. This is a family-owned company, one that we used to negotiate with us.

However, they decided to turn their labor relations over to an outside, union-busting consulting firm. So they now have this guy who used to be the chair of the Oregon state Republican Party doing their negotiating. And he's running this like 1930s-style negotiations. They're intimidating workers, telling them to resign from the union, using goons--it's just shameful.

For instance, one of our union staffers went into a store to inquire about a paycheck for a worker who had been out sick. I'm not exactly sure what happened, but our union rep ended up on the ground with his hands behind his back, and now he's stuck in jail. They want to take all of our members out of the union health care plan and put them in a company-controlled health care plan, which they get to make all the decisions about. We just can't let them do that.

This isn't the first instance of management use of such underhanded tactics. Even before the strike began, workers in Fair Oaks, Calif., reported intimidation and misinformation campaigns targeting union members.

Several members were given letters from Kevin Konkel, Raley's senior vice president of operations, urging them not to strike and discussing potential consequences should they choose to walk out. These letters arrived with fax-in union resignation forms.

Union members also report being antagonized and face-to-face "interviews" with management. "Some of these managers are pulling workers aside, asking them if they plan on striking," says Sandra, a head clerk at a Sacramento County Raley's store. "They've even been holding two-hour conference calls that train them on what exactly to say."

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RALEY'S MANAGEMENT has made its hostility to striking workers completely clear. Various Raley's stores across Northern California are displaying large signs advertising scab jobs to those willing to cross the picket line. The first headline on the Raley's website praises the "friendly employees who have crossed the picket line with great courage" to keep the company afloat. According to union representatives, some of these positions included $13 per hour wages, $3 above the $10 per hour average.

The company has also begun a misinformation campaign in the local media, issuing statements implying that workers enjoy a wide array of benefits and generous pay up to $21 per hour.

But what company officials don't explain is that only a tiny number of workers get paid at that rate. "Normally, employees have to have a significant amount of seniority to get paid that wage," Sandra said. "That's barely 10 percent of employees."

The union and its members remain enthusiastic and are determined to win the fight. Workers are daily handing out flyers to Raley's customers, many of whom are supportive of the strike action. The normally jammed parking lots at many stores are less than half full, and an opinion poll in the Sacramento Bee showed 84 percent support for union on the first day of the strike.

The work stoppage has already begun to put a strain on Raley's with store hours being reduced at various locations and customers turning away in solidarity with the picketers.

Other unions--including the Teamsters; Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 85; and International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Stationary Engineers Local 39--have expressed solidarity with the Raley's workers' struggle for a fair contract.

In particular, the pledge by Teamster truckers to honor UFCW picket lines could put Raley's management under significant pressure when stores begin to run out of key items.

"Teamsters do not cross picket lines," said Rich Fierro, a trustee with Teamsters Local 70. "We normally would deliver the soda, bread and alcohol [to Raley's], and we would also pick up the garbage. Every Teamster knows not to cross picket lines--that's absolutely mandatory for solidarity."

UFCW members have been fortified by the significant support for their struggle, but they also know that more work and pledges of solidarity will be essential to securing a victory in the face of Raley's anti-union, pro-austerity initiatives. "We need to get Teamsters, nurses, all unions to come down and help us. They're union too, and they can relate because they've been on strike," said Silva. "The more people who come out here on strike to support us, the better."

Todd Chretien, Ian Flanery, Stephanie Schwartz and Kenny Swain contributed to this article.