Friday, February 13, 2009

Labor & Food Retailing: Kroger Co. Chains Sign New Contract With the UFCW Union in Vegas; What Happened to the UFCW Tesco Fresh & Easy Campaign?

Las Vegas Market Region -- and Beyond

Kroger Co., the largest U.S. supermarket chain and the number three seller of food and groceries nationally in the country in terms of market share, (after number one Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Coscto), says it has reached agreement with the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union on a union contract for store-level employees in the Las Vegas, Nevada Metropolitan regional market.

Kroger Co. operates two supermarket chains in the Las Vegas Metro market -- Smith's Food and Drug and Food 4 Less.

The compromise contract agreement was signed with Las Vegas-based UFCW local 711, according to the union and Kroger Co. The local represents 2,800 Smith's and 900 Food 4 Less store-level workers at a combined 47 Smith's and Food 4 Less stores in the Las Vegas Metropolitan region.

"This agreement maintains quality jobs and affordable health care for our associates and their families in this challenging economy and keeps our stores competitive," Jim Hallsey, president of Smith's Food and Drug, and Dave Hirz, president of Food 4 Less, said in a joint statement issued by Kroger Co.

The UFCW union local and Kroger had been negotiating over a new contract for a considerable amount of time. Among the issues in the negotiations were health care and job security.

Vegas, supermarkets and the UFCW

The Las Vegas Metropolitan region is one of three markets where Tesco operates its 112 Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market combination grocery and fresh foods stores. The other two markets are Southern California and the Phoenix, Arizona Metropolitan region. There are about 35 Fresh & Easy markets in the Las Vegas Metro region.

Unlike Kroger's Smith's Food & Drug and Food 4 Less and most of the other supermarket chains in the Las Vegas, Nevada region -- as well as those in California and Arizona -- Tesco's Fresh & Easy is non-union.

Other major chains in the three markets that are unionized include Safeway Stores, Inc. (Safeway and Vons banners in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona), Ralphs (Southern California) and Fry's (Arizona) (both Kroger Co.-owned), Albertsons (Southern California, Nevada, Arizona) and a number of others, including smaller, privately-held grocery chains like 18-store Gelson's in Southern California and some others.

Most of the chain and larger, multi-store independents (and even some single-store operators) in the three markets are UFCW-union affiliated. But like Tesco's Fresh & Easy, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market, all major food retailers with numerous stores in the three markets, aren't unionized either.

UFCW in relative hibernation over Tesco Fresh & Easy

As regular readers of Fresh & Easy Buzz know from our extensive coverage of the issue throughout 2008, the UFCW made Tesco's Fresh & Easy its prime target in terms of non-union food and grocery retailer unionization campaigns last year.

The UFCW had its closest chance to achieve potential unionization at Fresh & Easy when employees of the Fresh & Easy market in Huntington Beach, California sent a letter to Tesco Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market's senior management at corporate headquarters in Southern California, requesting to be recognized as a UFCW-affiliated union store.

The company responded to the store employees, telling them they were welcome to follow established procedures and hold a "secret ballot" vote on UFCW-affiliation and becoming a union store in accordance with U.S. Department of Labor guidelines. [Read our report on the store-issue in this September, 2008 piece: [Store Workers at Huntington Beach Fresh & Easy Demand Union Recognition From Tesco Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market.] Such a response by a non-union grocery retailing company is common; it's the norm rather than the exception.

The UFCW said at the time it planned to go forward and work with the Huntington Beach store employees and to eventually hold a vote on unionization.

However, its been about six months, September, 2008 to the present, and no Huntington Beach Fresh & Easy store employee union vote has taken place yet.

Political developments and UFCW's Tesco Fresh & Easy campaign

Of course, since September, 2008 much has happened politically in the U.S. Most specifically for the UFCW, Barack Obama was elected President, with much support by organized labor, including the union which represents about 1.5 million unionized supermarket workers in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

President Obama, along with the unions and the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, are in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act legislation and its "Card Check" provision, which instead of a "secret ballot" (the current process) vote (which isn't as easy a process as it sounds), would only require employees in all industries, including food and grocery retailing, to check "yes" on card if they want to join a union.

If the majority of say the 25 employees at a Fresh & Easy market checked yes under "Card Check," they would be certified as a union shop. The secret ballot process is much more elaborate and longer. It also allows companies to meet with and attempt to convince employees not to join the union during the process, subject to U.S. Labor Law provisions of course.

Most of corporate America, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business trade groups, and the majority of Republicans in the House and Senate, are against the Employee Free Choice Act and its "Card Check" provision. They argue the "secret ballot" is the only fair way to hold a unionization vote, comparing the process to the "secret ballot" voters cast in electing their representatives.

The unions and other supporters, including the majority of Democrats in Congress and the President, challenge that, saying employees should have a right to an easy way, like "Card Check," to say "yes" or "no" to joining a union. They also argue voting for those who represent citizens in public office is far different than an employee electing to join a union or not.

According to a couple of our sources, the UFCW has been so much less active in its efforts to unionize Tesco's Fresh & Easy so far this year because it is waiting for Congress to put the Employee Free Choice Act with its "Card Check" provision up for debate and eventual vote in the House and Senate.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, from California, has said she wants to introduce the Employee Free Choice Act legislation this year. Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, from Searchlight, Nevada, hasn't said yet if he will introduce the legislation in the Senate this year.

The Employee Free Choice Act was voted on in 2008 by both the House and the Senate. It passed by a majority in the House, where just a simple majority is needed to pass legislation, but failed to gain 60 votes in the Senate, which requires that many votes, called a Supermajority, in order to pass legislation that is opposed and filibustered by the opposition party, which the minority Senate Republicans did successfully last year. As a result, the legislation failed to get the required 60 votes in the Senate and went away. President George W. Bush has promised he would not sign the legislation if it did pass the Senate.

However, the Democrats now have a considerably larger majority in the Senate after the 2008 election than they did in 2008. There are currently 57 Democrats in the Senate, and possibly soon 58, if former comedian and radio talk show host Al Franken is confirmed as the Senator from Minnesota in that disputed election, which looks like will happen soon. Additionally, the two independents in the Senate voted for the Employee Free Choice Act the last time around. That could give them the needed 60 votes, assuming all Democrats voted in favor of the legislation. One or two moderate Republicans also could vote in favor of the legislation if it is raised this year.

President Obama has already said he would sign the Employee Free Choice Act if passed by Congress. However, it isn't at the top of his agenda right now -- the economy is.

And the President and his top aids are also concerned about the legislation being brought up anytime soon in 2009 (they prefer 2010) out of fear it will cause a backlash with unemployment at such record highs, and growing. The fear is that a debate on the Employee Free Choice Act this year would give Republicans a perfect issue to hammer the new Democratic President with, arguing as they did last year (but much louder this time) -- when the economy was much better than it is now and when unemployment was much lower than it is at present -- that passing the legislation would amount to a "job-killing" bill at a time when job loss is already skyrocketing.

The President's men also feel it would be a political gift to the conservative radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and others who have already said that if the Employee Free Choice Act comes up in Congress this year they will use it as a "job killing" hammer against the President and Democrats. One can almost visualize Rush Limbaugh encouraging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the legislation up in the House in the same way a fully-committed carnivore urges a vegetarian to just taste one bite of the beef Prime Rib so she can know what it actually tastes like to better make her case for vegetarianism.

Regardless of whether or not the UFCW is waiting for the Employee Free Choice Act and its "Card Check" provision to pass or not, it is fair to say that in terms of last year's super-aggressive and highly coordinated efforts to unionize Tesco Fresh & Easy store-level employees, thus far this year the UFCW has been in relative hibernation.

For example, while still picketing at some Fresh & Easy stores, the UFCW hasn't thus far this year demonstrated anywhere near as strongly as in 2008, when it had union reps at every new store opening, holding up signs, handing out literature and encouraging shoppers to not shop at the non-union stores.

Additionally, for most of 2008 the UFCW conducted a vocal and aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign both in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom where Tesco is headquartered, designed to draw attention to the fact Tesco's Fresh & Easy is non-union and to gain support from store employees, politicians and the media for its unionization efforts. Thus far this year that mighty UFCW 2008 PR machine has been near-silent.

Lastly, throughout 2008 UFCW representatives paid regularly scheduled visits to numerous Fresh & Easy stores. The regular visits are designed to get to know employees, build relationships with them and encourage them to join the unionization movement. We've talked with numerous Fresh & Easy store employees who say they haven't had a visit from UFCW representatives yet this year. This might not be unusual except that we talked to many of these same employees throughout 2008, and they told us then the UFCW representatives visited the stores on a regular basis, often once a month.

Unionization in an economic recession-depression

We can tell you that despite what appears to be the current hibernation of the UFCW regarding its Tesco Fresh & Easy unionization campaign, that the union's campaign to achieve that goal isn't over. But it is interesting how the union seems to have let the momentum they had going for most of last year fall off so much since the fall of 2008 to the present.

Of course, the economy is in shambles and job loss growing by the tens of thousands each day. Perhaps the union is being sensitive to this fact from a political standpoint. After all, this isn't the best time for employees of any company to be pitching to join a union to a non-union employer; not while they feel they could be next to lose their jobs because of the bad economy.

It's tough out there -- and getting tougher. Laid off formerly high-paid workers who haven't been able to find work in their respective industries for many months are hoping they can land jobs such as the $10 an hour part-time positions with medical insurance that Tesco's Fresh & Easy is offering. And there are few of those types of retail jobs out there right now as there generally has been in past recessions, not with America's retailers laying off 45,000 workers in January alone, with tens of thousands more to come this month.

You know that old saying, right: "It's a recession when your neighbor losses his job, it's a depression when you lose yours." More and more of our neighbors, as well as more and more of "us" are losing jobs. Call it a recession, call it a depression, depending on where you are in it. But another old saying is: "I know what it is when I see it." And "it" isn't looking good. As British Prime Minister Gordon Brown started calling "it" last week -- "The Depression."

It looks like the Kroger Co. employees in the Las Vegas Metropolitan region, which is one of the hardest hit in the U.S. by the recession and job losses, got their union contract renewal just in time.

Reader Resource

>[Click here for a selection of past stories from Fresh & Easy Buzz about the UFCW union-Tesco Fresh & Easy issue.]

>[Reader Note: You can follow Fresh & Easy Buzz on at:]

>Reader Comments: We invite reader comments on this story, and particularly want to hear your views on the issue of joining labor unions in times of serious economic recession, like at present. Is it a "good" thing to do in terms of it offering better pay and job security to workers? Is it a "job killing" proposition, as some suggest? What's your view? Just click on the "comments" link below to leave your comment.


Anonymous said...

I support the Fresh & Easy and all other workers in choosing to join a union if that's what they want. But right now it's all about keeping your job, even if the pay is lousy. I work in the food industry (not in retail), am out of work 4 months now, and the prospects are dim, even if I take half my previous salary. I am willing to take damn near that big of cut if I have to but still hardly a warm lead.

Bluegrass Pundit said...

The Employee Free Choice Act (card check) is costing jobs now. Many employers are facing the difficult task of what to do with their excess workforce in these slow economic times. Many are choosing to have a traditional layoff. My own company has been forced to have a layoff. However, fear of passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is forcing some companies to make the difficult decision to permanently fire employees. These fired employees will not have recall rights. If they are rehired, they will have to start all over for wages and benefits. Why is this? Fired employees can not be a part of a unionization campaign. If they have signed cards or sign cards in the future, these cards will not count under the EFCA. Most employers believe the 'card check' legislation will pass this year. President Obama supports this legislation and democrats control both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives has already passed this legislation. Employers are terrified of how easy it will be to unionize their workforces when this law passes. They are taking every step possible to prevent this from occurring. Unfortunately, this has a bad effect on employees who are being downsized.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know where joining a union will take you, just make a visit to Detroit. It that's your idea of a nice city, check the box. I recently abandoned the Ralph's, Von's and Albertsons in SoCal for Whole Food market and my grocery shopping experience has never been better (product, price & service). Before the end of 2009, I expect Safeway to be looking for a bailout to support a work population that has more retirees than employees.

Anonymous said...

I worked for Whole Foods Market until about 3 years ago. The union tried to organize a number of the stores but there was no interest among store team members. If a company offers similar pay and incentives not offered by the union like Whole Foods has the employees find it hard to see the benefits of joining a union. Also since most of the Whole Foods workers are younger, they don't look at unions in the same way many of the older workers at Vons, Ralphs and the other union supermarkets do. We came up in a different era.