Ralphs Grocery Co. and the union representing many of its employees have settled their dispute over the company's use of lower-paid clerks to do the work of veteran food clerks, both sides announced Friday.
Ralphs agreed to rehire 200 laid-off food clerks and restore the hours of a number of clerks who had their hours reduced, according to spokesmen for both sides. Additionally, the company will put $1 million into a fund to give back pay to employees who were laid off or had their hours cut, according to sources close to the union.
The agreement directly affects 7,000 retail clerks in 126 Ralphs stores in Southern California. And it may affect thousands of clerks at other supermarkets that were closely watching the dispute and are likely to base some of their staffing decisions on the Ralphs agreement, according to both management and union sources.
News of the settlement came as a surprise to many Ralphs employees in Orange County, many of whom already have been called back to work in recent weeks.
Clerk Expresses Surprise
"No kidding?" said a surprised Sally Gouveia, a recently recalled part-time checker at Ralphs' Culver Drive store in Irvine. "We had heard it wouldn't be settled until early next year."
Gene Brown, Ralphs' senior vice president for public relations, said Friday of the settlement: "We're delighted, very pleased."
"We have been recalling people anyway," Brown said. "But of course, according to the settlement, if they haven't already been called back, they will be."
Nine locals of the United Food & Commercial Workers union, who represent Ralphs clerks from San Diego to Santa Barbara, accused the company of violating its contract by laying off or demoting 1,800 workers over 16 months. Union leaders said Ralphs was replacing veteran employees with younger, less-experienced workers who earn lower salaries.
Led to Arbitration
Ralphs responded that it was acting legally and said that nowhere near as many workers had been laid off or demoted as the union had charged.
The dispute led to a major arbitration case, federal court lawsuits and demonstrations. In August, the Food & Commercial Workers, one of the nation's largest unions, announced that it would spend up to $1 million waging a consumer boycott against Ralphs. Because the dispute was resolved 10 weeks later, the union wound up spending far less.
But on Friday the two sides issued a joint statement that betrayed no hint of the animosity that had existed. It called the settlement "a major joint victory." And it concluded: "We are certain that the company's high standards and cooperative labor relations policies will be immediately recognized by all Ralphs customers and employees."
Spokesmen for both sides also said they would jointly place newspaper advertisements announcing the conclusion of the dispute and the termination of the boycott.
"The company's commitment to reinstate laid-off employees and restore food clerks and affected employees to their former positions underscores the overwhelming significance of this agreement," the statement said.
The presidents of the nine local unions also said the settlement was "a full, fair and equitable resolution, which will benefit all the clerks employed by Ralphs Grocery Co. and indirectly all union clerks in Southern California."
Union spokesmen said the job security guarantees that they had won were a critical element of the settlement. Ricardo Icazza, president of Food & Commercial Workers Local 770, said the settlement meant that a disputed section of the union contract with Ralphs "can't be used for the purpose of laying off, demoting or reducing the hours of food clerks."
He said all of the workers who had been laid off because of the company's "crossover policy" of using general merchandise clerks to do higher-paid food clerks' work since Oct. 31, 1984, the date that the union started filing grievances over Ralphs' policy, would be reinstated. He said the reinstatement would occur by Dec. 1, unless there is a meatcutters strike this month at Southern California supermarkets, including Ralphs. If that happens, the recall would be delayed.
"We won everything," said a source close to the union who declined to be named.
But Thomas Kerrigan, one of Ralphs' attorneys, said the company "got a lot of things" out of the settlement. He said the agreement would enable Ralphs to have greater operating flexibility and to lower its labor costs in the long run.
One key point in dispute was whether a general clerk could be used to replace a food clerk for more than a day at a time. The union argued that Ralphs could only make such a substitution when an absence was brief and unexpected, or the company had a sudden, unanticipated increase in business. Ralphs maintained that such an absence could be considerably longer, perhaps months. The two sides settled on two weeks. This means, for example, that if a food clerk is scheduled to go on vacation for two weeks, he can be replaced by a general clerk.