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THE SUPERMARKET STRIKE

Union Fund Bolsters Picket Lines

Workers each are eligible for $200 to $300 a week from money raised by the UFCW as part of a strike strategy.

October 14, 2003|James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Since she began walking the picket line at the Vons in Eagle Rock last weekend, supermarket checker and union strike captain Kathy Moore has been approached by a number of fellow workers wondering the same thing: How long can the money hold out?

Picketing grocery workers in Southern and Central California are backed by a multimillion-dollar strike fund that is paying them part of their normal wages, giving members of the United Food and Commercial Workers an added incentive to hang in there and stay off the job.

In all, the 70,000 employees who are on strike or find themselves locked out by the supermarket chains are taking in $200 to $300 a week from the fund. The UFCW began amassing these reserves a year ago, before starting contentious bargaining with several companies over health-care benefits and other issues.

UFCW headquarters in Washington is contributing $100 per worker, or $7 million, a week, union spokesman Greg Denier said. The rest is flowing in from the union's seven Southern California local chapters.

Part of the strike fund money came from the employees themselves via their union dues and from an extra $2-a-week contribution they and other UFCW members have been making for the last year, specifically to gear up for a strike.

On the front lines, at least several pickets have "asked how long are you going to keep paying us?" Moore said. "And what if it lasts two or three months?"

The union would not say exactly how much money is in the fund or how long it can support workers if the grocery strike drags on. But Denier vowed that if the walkout persisted, UFCW officials would raise whatever cash was necessary to keep the strike fund intact.

Moore said that she, for one, was hopeful that union leaders would come through. "I feel very confident that it can last the duration," she said. "Besides, there might be other resources out there."

In fact, the union has "a variety of assets" and 1.4 million members in North America, noted Sarah Palmer Amos, the union's director of collective bargaining. "If we need to go back and ask for more, we will," she said.

Denier said the UFCW's leadership also had declared that, if needed, it would "take out a second mortgage on the [union's] international headquarters in order to support its members."

If all the California supermarket workers received, say, an average of $200 while on strike for a week, it would equal $14 million. Two weeks would cost $28 million, and if the strike lasted four weeks, the fund would need $56 million.

A viable strike fund is an important tool for organized labor. During contract negotiations, it "makes it more plausible that the employees will back up the union," said Ray Friedman, an associate professor and labor specialist at Vanderbilt University. That, in turn, sends a signal to the company side that the strike is bound to have legs.

Still, Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, said employers "can't use it for a hard-and-fast calculation" as to how long a strike might last.

"A lot depends not only on the strike fund but on other variables, such as whether the workers become discouraged at the possibility of losing their jobs," he said.

Strike funds have been established in the auto, steel, freight and communications industries. Earlier this year, the Communications Workers of America said it had a $250-million strike fund to help 79,000 workers in the Northeast who were threatening a strike against Verizon Communications Inc. The walkout was averted.

The fund "is not designed to be a replacement for wages," said Ellen Anreder, a spokeswoman for several UFCW locals involved in the grocer walkout. Indeed, the union for months urged its members to sock away money in case of a strike.

Veteran clerks and stockers earn as much as $17.90 an hour, or $716 for a 40-hour week. Thus, a $200 payment from the strike fund would cover 28% of their normal weekly pay. Baggers earn up to $7.40 an hour, or $296 for a 40-hour week.

Eligible workers began accruing strike pay at the start of the strike and lockouts. Union locals establish the eligibility requirements for the strike fund.

"In general," said Denier, "workers are paid strike benefits based on their participation." In most cases, he explained, that means picketing -- not just watching television at home.

Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland and Melinda Fulmer contributed to this report.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

On February 12, 2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had stated repeatedly that 70,000 workers were involved in the supermarket labor dispute in Central and Southern California, said that the number of people on strike or locked out was actually 59,000. A union spokeswoman, Barbara Maynard, said that 70,000 UFCW members were, in fact, covered by the labor contract with supermarkets that expired last year. But 11,000 of them worked for Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., Arden Group Inc.'s Gelson's and other regional grocery companies and were still on the job. (See: "UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2004, Business C-11)

--- END NOTE ---

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