Monday, May 23, 2011
Odds Southern California Grocery Store Workers Will Strike Highest Since Contract Talks Began
Southern California Market Region
The odds unionized grocery store workers in Southern California, (and the Central Coast and southern Central Valley) strike one or more of the region's "big three" unionized supermarket chains - Kroger's Ralphs, Safeway's Vons, and Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu, Inc. - are much more likely today than they were just a week ago, based on our reporting and in our analysis.
Why? Last week representatives for the three grocery chains noted above presented negotiators from the United Foods & Commercial Workers' (UFCW) locals in Southern California with a proposal that details the health care plan changes - read significant cuts - the grocers want as part of the new three year contract that's being negotiated involving the chains and the about 60,000 unionized grocery store workers in the region.
Last month the union presented the chains with their health care plan proposal. The proposal from the grocers was their counter-offer, which is what the union says it's been waiting for since April.
And the presidents of the UFCW locals in Southern California pronounced the proposal, which would shift a considerable amount of health care costs to the store workers, dead on arrival.
For example, Ricardo Icaza, the president of UFCW local 770 which represent about 36,000 of the 60,000 unionized retail clerks in a region that stretches from Santa Maria on the Central Coast to Bakersfield in the southern Central Valley and includes Los Angeles County out to the Lancaster/Palmdale area in the desert, said in a note to union members on Thursday, May 19: "Ralphs, Vons, and Albertsons presented your union with a proposal that would effectively destroy your health coverage." No ambiguity in that statement.
On Friday, Michael Straeter, president of UFCW local 1442 which represents unionized retail clerks from Malibu to Long Beach in Southern California, had a similar message for the members of his local, saying: " [The] health care proposal from the company [Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons] shifts 80% of new costs to you," meaning the union members. "Stay strong as negotiations continue," he added in the message to the rank-and-file.
Straeter, who says the proposed health care plan changes will shift $450 million over three years from the supermarket chains to workers, also told his members to prepare to start picketing as early as this coming weekend.
The negotiations between UFCW representatives and the three supermarket chains will continue this week. The negotiators for both parties will once again be joined by a federal mediator, who's assisting with the talks at the request of the UFCW union.
But the union locals are thinking beyond what is an obvious impasse, in our analysis - the grocers say their proposal regarding the heath care plan changes is "reasonable" but the UFCW locals say it's a non-starter, which equals an impasse for all intents and purposes, even though the negotiations will continue. The federal mediator will obviously be busy mediating this week.
Union stewards and picket captains have been told by the union leaders to attend a meeting on Thursday, May 26, in which the possibility of forming picket lines at one or all three chains will be discussed. A UFCW representative told us Friday that the picket signs are already being made.
The UFCW members authorized the union on April 21 to call a strike if and when it decides to do so. (See the related stories linked at the end of this piece.)
What we're being told by more than one source a present - and this information is always subject to change - is that if a strike is called anytime soon, the current plan is to stage a walkout on Supervalu's Albertson's chain, which is the number three grocer among the "big three" in terms of annual sales and market share in Southern California. Kroger's Ralphs' is number one. Safeway Stores-owned Vons is number two.
We're also being told from other sources, on the chain side of the equation in this instance, that Ralphs' is likely to lock its employees out of the stores (meaning no work and no pay) should the UFCW and its members strike Albertsons. If Ralphs does this, Safeway's Vons is likely to follow suit, although most of our sources are far less sure about Safeway's thinking on the matter than they are about Ralphs'.
Kroger Co.'s Ralphs' division is still in court with the UFCW union over various actions involving the 2003 Southern California grocery workers strike and lockout by the chain, in fact.
The stakes are very high for the UFCW locals for a number of reasons if they do call a strike .
First, if they strike one or more of the three chains, they will be handing a whole bunch of new business to the many non-union grocers in Southern California, including Walmart, Target, Costco, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, Sprouts Farmers Market/Henry's, Bristol Farms, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market and others, that they're trying to unionize. Most of the non-union chains are already gearing up for a strike and thinking about the extra business it could bring their stores.
Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons are already under heavy pressure from the non-union players in Southern California that since the last contract was signed in 2007 have continued to grow - not to mention there being new entries to the market since 2007, like Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, which now has 101 stores in Southern California and seven in the Bakersfield region (out of its 175 total in California, Nevada and Arizona) - and take sales and market share from the "big three."
All of the fastest growing chains in the region are non-union. The "big three" unionized chains have added few stores in Southern California in comparison to all of the non-union grocers mentioned above.
At the other side of the negotiating table, Kroger's Ralphs, Safeway's Vons and Supervalu' Albertsons appear at present to be very firm on the cost reductions they say they need in the health care plans. They're saying very little publicly but are offering the message that health care costs are at the top of the list of their fastest-rising expenses.
Look for the end of the week starting today to be a crucial point in time in the labor negotiations. If no material progress is made between the two parties this week - and there isn't going to be unless the chain's take back much of what they're asking for in the health benefits proposal, which the odds of happening are less than 5% in our analysis - then a complete impasse will be reached, meaning the union will feel the need to seriously consider a strike against one of more of the three chain's at week's end.
We suspect picketing and leafleting will come first, before a strike is called, if it is. We also don't expect a strike to be called this week or next week. But the following week,if there's no material improvement in the negotiations, the hoof beats for a strike on at least one chain are going to be very loud, in our analysis.
And perhaps the "big three" unionized chains would welcome a strike if avoiding one means giving in significantly on the takeaways they're asking for in their proposal. (They will take less than what they desire and are asking for now in the long run though. But it could be a very long run.)
Our take is that the grocers are very serious about achieving some significant savings in their costs for the union employees' health care plan. It's also our take that the union is very serious about accepting more than a small percentage of increased costs to workers for their health care plans. Stalemate
But the potential labor pool in Southern California is vast at present, since unemployment in most of the region remains in double digits. We suspect people would be lined up by the hundreds at Ralphs supermarkets in Southern California if, for example, the UFCW strikes Albertsons, and Kroger's Ralphs locks out it employees.
For example, grocers opening new stores in Southern California over the last three years generally get four or five times as many people applying for jobs at the store then they have positions available.
Additionally, organized labor and unions also are at an all time low in terms of the percentage of Americans that favor them. A strike by the UFCW of one or more of the "big three" unionized supermarket chains could have the undesired consequence for the UFCW of the majority of consumers coming out in support of the grocers rather than the store employees, particularly because in times of high unemployment both the unemployed, the under-employed and insecure employed have far less sympathy for and are less likely to support labor strikes.
In contrast, if the union thinks the offer by the grocers is outrageous, taking more time to build that case among the grocery shopping public in Southern California could lead to greater support for the store workers than if a strike is called within the next few weeks, for example. It's all about gaging and influencing public opinion.
Another factor worth noting is that the ever-increasing price of food at the grocery store and cost of gasoline at the pump is giving the average consumer a considerable amount of grief and causing added worries on top of those created by a still high unemployment situation, ongoing housing crisis and anemic economy. Those aren't the factors that generally provide a warm reception to strikes, particularly when they are at grocery stores, a place all consumers in Southern California and elsewhere frequent regularly.
April 25, 2011: Talks Between Southern California's 'Big Three' Grocery Chains and UFCW Union Resume Tomorrow
April 21, 2011: Southern California Grocery Store Workers Vote to Authorize Strike Against 'Big Three' Chains