Since the first of the year, the Ralphs Grocery Store Co. has told scores of Southland employees to accept lower-paying positions or be laid off and replaced by workers with less seniority, according to labor and company officials.
That cost-cutting move is the latest in a 14-month series of layoffs and forced reductions in hours worked by Ralphs' highest-paid employees, and it has provoked harsh criticism from labor officials that the supermarket chain is violating its collective bargaining agreement.
More than 250 Orange County employees of Ralphs gathered Wednesday night at the Buena Park headquarters of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to discuss how they intend to fight the company manuever.
Ralphs acknowledged Wednesday that 89 part-time and two full-time workers have been laid off so far this year at 126 stores. The company said another 44 part-time and two full-time workers are being notified that this will be their last week of employment.
The company, while acknowledging it has been juggling work hours to achieve savings in costs, said it did not know how many workers had their hours reduced.
Officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said that in 1984 at least 1,000 food clerks were either laid off, took "drastic cuts" in their work hours or were demoted to lower-paying job classifications. This year, the union says, about 800 more workers have been involved in the cutbacks in some form. Workers classified as food clerks represent about 9,000 of Ralphs' total 11,600 employees.
The new twist this year, union officials said, is that Ralphs has been laying off food clerks earning $11.80 an hour and replacing them with general merchandise clerks, whose salaries range from $5.37 to $7.09 an hour. Union officials said that the general merchandise clerks are designated as food clerk apprentices, able to stock food on shelves and operate cash registers. In most cases, the union said, senior employees are being told they can keep working for Ralphs only if they accept the lower-paid designation. "Ralphs is attempting to reduce its labor costs at the expense of the food clerks and in violation of its collective bargaining agreement with the UFCW," John C. Sperry, president of UFCW Local 324 and spokesman for the nine union locals in Southern California, said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
Complaints From Workers
Gary Crawford, a union representative who was fielding grievance calls at Local 324's headquarters in Buena Park on Wednesday, said he had received about 23 complaints from members who had received a notice of job termination in the latest round of cuts. Some of the laid-off workers, he said, had been employed for as long as seven years.
The experience of Maureen Smith, a Ralphs cashier in the San Juan Capistrano store for the past five years, illustrates what happened in at least one case. Last week Smith, 36, was notified that Friday would be her last day on the job unless she accepted a part-time position as "box boy" and have her hourly wage slashed from $11.80 to $5.37.
"I'm not just losing my job, I'm losing my family," said Smith, who expects a custody fight for two of her children with her former husband now that her primary source of income has been cut. To make up the expected loss in pay, Smith has taken on two part-time jobs delivering newspapers and bread products.
Officials of the Compton-based Ralphs Grocery Store Co., a division of Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati, said that under the terms of its contract with the union it has a legal right to replace food clerks with lower-paid personnel. They argue that the public will benefit because lower costs translate into lower grocery prices.
"Labor is 70% of our current costs, and we are operating on a 1% profit margin," said Jan Charles Gray, Ralphs vice president and general counsel. "The end result of the low cost of labor is lower cost to the consumer."
Ralphs reported $1.7 billion in sales in its last fiscal year, ended Feb. 2, up from $1.4 billion the previous year, and claims the largest market share of any grocery chain in the Los Angeles-Orange County region.
Both Ralphs and the union agree that their dispute is over conflicting interpretations of contract provisions concerning seniority rights and the character of the work that may be performed by general merchandise clerks, a definition that has been broadened in recent years. Already, the union says, it has filed hundreds of grievances with Ralphs over alleged contract violations, many of which have gone to arbitration.
"There is every chance that this matter will eventually have to be settled by the National Labor Relations Board," Sperry said. "In the meantime, we will file grievances on every case of wrongful dismissal or layoff by Ralphs."