Under pressure from their national leadership, their employers and fellow unionists, enough members of three dissident meat cutter union locals grudgingly voted approval of a new contract Sunday to end the eight-week Southern California supermarket labor dispute.
It was the second time the meat cutters had voted on the offer in four days. Their rejection of it Thursday delayed an expected settlement.
When Sunday's vote by the three locals was added to Thursday's vote among three other meat cutter locals that had supported the contract, ratification was approved by almost 54% of the members, 1,826 to 1,531. Thursday's pro-ratification vote was 45%, 1,640 in favor to 2,040 opposed.
Return 'as Needed'
As a result of the Sunday ballot, the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 10,000 meat cutters and meat wrappers, joined the Teamsters union, representing 12,000 drivers and warehouse employers, in ratifying three-year pacts with the Food Employers Council, which bargained on behalf of seven supermarket chains.
Under the terms of both contracts, markets are to immediately begin calling workers back to their jobs on an "as-needed" basis.
The labor dispute, which began Nov. 5, originally involved a strike against Vons. Six other chains--Safeway, Ralphs, Albertson's, Lucky (Food Basket in San Diego), Alpha Beta and Hughes--locked out union members. The dispute affected nearly 1,000 markets, but after the initial weeks its effect on customers appeared to be minimal. Markets were able to hire enough non-union substitutes to keep the food distribution process running relatively smoothly.
Many Members Complain
Sunday's balloting was a bitter affair. Many meat cutter union members complained that national leaders of their union had sold them out by pressuring them to approve a contract that lacks sufficient job security guarantees to protect workers against new work rule concessions demanded by the markets.
"I'm damned hurt," said L. Whitey Ulrich, president of Local 551, which covers Orange County and southeastern Los Angeles County.
Ulrich's local and two others--Locals 587 in West Los Angeles and 439 in the San Gabriel Valley--had voted against the contract Thursday by large margins, canceling out the support the contract received from three other meat cutter locals. Meanwhile, the Teamsters were approving their new contract with 70% support.
On Friday, William H. Wynn, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, ordered a second vote to be conducted with ballots mailed to members' homes. In response, the three dissident unions' leaders--themselves critical of the proposed contract--scheduled Sunday membership meetings to decide the question immediately.
Members of two of the three dissident locals went against ratification the second time around.
Local 551, whose membership gave 14% support to ratification Thursday, was 47% for it this time. Local 439's support fell, from 37% to 31%. Local 587, far smaller than the other two, reversed itself, increasing support from 27% to 89%.
Overall, the three locals voted 620 in favor to 771 against the contract Sunday, compared to a vote of 416 for and 1,280 against on Thursday.
Many meat cutters interviewed Sunday said they believed that they simply had no choice but to vote for the contract because the three other locals had voted approval, Teamsters were already going back to work and some supermarkets had begun telephoning meat cutters and asking them to report back on the assumption that the contract would be ratified by the entire union.
Beyond that, union members believed that if ratification had been turned down, a subsequent mailed ballot--which traditionally produces more support for a contract than voting held at membership meetings--would result in approval.
"God knows I love a fight, but you can't fight everybody," Ulrich told his membership at a Long Beach meeting.
"We're only strong as our weakest links, and some of those links broke. . . . There's never been stronger support (for a strike), and we're still getting kicked," Ulrich said.
"We might as well get back to work and make a little money," said Dennis Baker, a meat cutter who attended Local 551's meeting.
"People are starting to hurt now," said Ron Dowlin, another cutter.
Like many unionists, both Baker and Dowlin said they believe that the new contract is unfair. At issue was a two-tier wage system in which newly hired meat wrappers will be paid $5.53 an hour, about half as much as those now on staff. Workers believe that the markets will manipulate staffing to reduce hours of higher-paid workers in favor of lower-paid ones.
The contract also allows markets to reduce from 16 to 8 the number of hours a journeyman meat cutter must be on duty, a provision meat cutters said would threaten their overtime. The contract also cuts the minimum day for newly hired workers from eight hours to four.
Last week union negotiators said they believed that there was sufficient language in the contract to prevent markets from taking advantage of employees.
"I've never seen a labor agreement that didn't result in some people being dissatisfied, but I think the majority are pleased," said Dan Swinton, a spokesman for the union.