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THE SUPER MARKET STRIKE

Union Sues Ralphs, Albertsons Over Lockout

Workers say the supermarkets' action broke state law. But one lawyer points out the move is allowed under federal labor statutes.

October 15, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

The union representing striking supermarket workers on Tuesday sued Ralphs and Albertsons, alleging the grocery chains violated state law by locking out their union workers in a show of corporate solidarity with Vons and Pavilions.

The strike was called by the United Food and Commercial Workers union late Saturday against Vons and Pavilions stores owned by Safeway Inc. Ralphs, owned by Kroger Co., and Albertsons Inc. also bargain jointly with the union, and the supermarkets had said they would lock out UFCW workers if any of the chains was targeted. "A strike against one is a strike against all," Sandra Calderon, a spokeswoman for Vons, said.

Within hours of the strike against Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons told all their union employees to leave.

Supermarkets are seeking cuts in health and pension benefits, a two-year wage freeze, significantly lower pay for new hires, and the right to allow outside vendors to stock shelves and perform other tasks. They also want the right to open nonunion markets.

No date has been set for negotiations to resume. A total of 859 grocery stores and 70,000 workers are affected.

Attorneys for the UFCW filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming the lockout violated a law that went into effect this year requiring employers to give 60 days' notice before any mass layoff.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Supermarket strike -- In its coverage of the supermarket strike and lockout that began Oct. 11, The Times has said repeatedly that the labor dispute affected 859 union grocery stores in Southern and Central California. In fact, 852 stores are affected.

"If an employee has been told, 'You cannot work for an indefinite period of time,' that's a layoff," said Michael Four, one of the Los Angeles attorneys who filed the suit on behalf of the UFCW.

The lawsuit seeks back pay and health-care and pension payments for the 60 days. The union estimates the total amount owed will exceed several hundred million dollars.

Albertsons spokeswoman Lilia Rodriguez told Bloomberg News that the lawsuit was "without merit." She said workers who are locked out are still employed.

Scott Witlin, a labor attorney who represents employers, predicted the suit would fail because federal labor law would preempt the state law.

"The right to strike and the right to lock out is protected by federal labor law," said Witlin, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Proskauer Rose. "And there's a doctrine that says anything that's arguably permitted or prohibited by the federal law cannot be regulated by the states. A lockout is a permitted tactic in a labor dispute."

UFCW attorneys, however, said the law should hold up in this case. "There's no trade dispute exception in the state law as there is in the federal law," said attorney Joe Paller, who helped file the suit.

"We think we're on solid ground," he said.

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