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California and the West

A Super Food Fight

Retail: A union's dispute with an L.A.-based discount grocery chain has mushroomed to the state Capitol.


SACRAMENTO — For 15 years, union organizers have struggled with the nonunion Superior Super Warehouse chain of eight big discount food stores, all in Los Angeles-area minority communities.

That's the out-front version of what's going on--the union's attempt to sign up the chain's 1,500 employees.

But behind that protracted fight lies a mano a mano battle between two strong personalities that has found its way to the state Capitol.

Hardball politics, proxies doing combat in public and touches of pathos characterize the duel between seasoned union leader Ricardo Icaza, president of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the supermarket's founder, James Oh.

Their fight has been waged in the courts, before city, county and federal agencies, and now, for the second time in two years, it has reached Sacramento--where the stakes are the highest.

With the help of allies in the state Legislature, the union's aim has been to prevent the chain from keeping important government contracts involving food aid to the poor, Icaza said.

The contracts, for the state's women and infant children nutrition program and for federally funded food stamps, are crucial to the chain's survival. Without the estimated $5 million a month generated from the two programs, the chain would collapse, its operators say.

For the 30,000-member union, the stakes are just as high, Icaza said. More workers in nonunion shops drops the percentage of food workers that Local 770 represents, thus weakening its power as a bargaining unit trying to protect union jobs, he said.

The union's effort to stop the government contracts has focused on the 65-year-old Oh, who in 1996 pleaded guilty to offering a $50,000 bribe to an IRS agent in a failed effort to lower his tax bills, which amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He served eight months under federal supervision, some of the time in a halfway house and some of the time wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet.

The union and its allies contend that the state should not be associated with a convicted felon. "It's wrong for somebody like James Oh to make millions every month in tax money after having been convicted of trying to bribe the tax man," said the union's political consultant, Richie Ross, a veteran Democratic strategist.

If loss of the contracts means the chain goes out of business, Icaza said, "that's tough luck" for Oh. Icaza contends that other stores offering better products and better jobs--"good union jobs"--would "fill the void."

Oh has enlisted the services of Ira Reiner, the former Los Angeles County district attorney who is no stranger himself to hardball politics.

Although Oh is "not an angel," Reiner said, depriving his client's supermarkets of the contracts would needlessly harm others. Oh, according to Reiner, performs a vital service that is rare among urban entrepreneurs.

He sells groceries at affordable prices, mostly to African American and Latino patrons, in Watts, South-Central, Lynwood, Huntington Park, South El Monte, Cudahy and Montebello, Reiner testified recently at a legislative hearing. Oh hires from the neighborhoods and uses minority developers to build stores when he expands.

The large, cut-rate, bag-your-own-groceries stores, Reiner said, are "at the absolute high end. They are sort of a cross between Gelson's and a Ralphs warehouse . . . far better than many we have come to expect to operate in minority communities."

The union, which has disputed such assertions for years, won a temporary victory in April 1997, when the state Department of Health Services, citing Oh's conviction, halted its dealings with the supermarket chain.

But Reiner went to court, argued that there was no connection between Oh's conviction and the chain's delivery of food aid to women and children, and got the contract reinstated.

The chain then sued the state for its losses and, according to company officials, was paid $88,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

As Reiner sees it, that should have been the end of it, and the union should have gone back to "legitimately duking it out" in the union-employer arena.

Instead, the union spread the fight to the Capitol.

Its first legislative challenge to Oh occurred during the hectic closing hours of the last legislative year. That was when Democratic Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia of Bell, whose district includes some of Oh's stores, sought to insert language into a welfare reform bill that would have made Oh ineligible for state contracts because of his criminal conviction.

But the last-minute attempt failed, in part because of resistance from other legislators representing areas in which Oh's markets are located.

This year, a bill by Escutia with the same consequences for Oh made it through the Assembly on May 28. Among those who voted against it was South-Central Democratic Assemblyman Roderick Wright, who argued that Oh's operations benefit many in the black community, both consumers and businesses.

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