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California | THE SUPERMARKET STRIKE

Union Sues Grocers for Unpaid Wages

October 24, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

The United Food and Commercial Workers union sued three major supermarket chains Thursday for failing to pay striking and locked-out workers wages they claim they are owed under California law.

The union launched a strike against Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores at midnight Oct. 11. Albertsons Inc. and Ralphs, a unit of Kroger Co., then locked out their union workers.

One of two suits filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court charges that the three chains should have included earned vacation and sick pay in all striking and locked-out workers' last paychecks, issued last week.

The second suit alleges that those who showed up for work the weekend of Oct. 11 only to be locked out by Albertsons and Ralphs are entitled to "reporting time pay" equal to two to four hours' wages.

The union said the amount of money involved totaled more than $1 million.

About 70,000 union workers are on picket lines in Southern and Central California.

Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil said that because the three companies hadn't seen the suits, "we have no comment at this point."

Thursday's legal actions came as amendments to a lawsuit the UFCW filed last week against Ralphs and Albertsons, claiming the companies locked out employees without giving them the warning California law requires.

On Thursday, the UFCW agreed to stop picketing outside two grocery distribution centers in El Monte and Brea so that about 250 Teamsters could return to work.

The two centers employ UFCW members, unlike others in the area that are staffed solely by Teamsters workers. By picketing those two centers, the union had kept Teamsters warehouse employees from their jobs.

Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said that if talks with the supermarket chains failed to resume by the middle of next month, he expected to set up pickets at all distribution centers in the Southland.

That would keep 8,000 Teamsters drivers and warehouse workers off the job.

Icaza, who met with picket captains throughout the Los Angeles area Wednesday morning, said that at this point, it wasn't necessary yet to try to shut the centers down.

"Nobody's buying anything in the stores anyway," he said. "And it's only going to get worse."

Supermarket and union representatives said there had been no move by either side to restart negotiations.

A federal mediator who briefly participated in the talks over a new union contract is not involved at this time, they said.

The contract proposed by the supermarket chains was rejected by 97% of union voters.

"We have not been contacted by the union since it called its strike," said O'Neil, the Ralphs spokesman. "We have not been contacted by anyone from the federal mediation service.

"We still believe that this labor dispute will go on for quite some time," he added. "We are prepared to continue to operate our stores for as long as the strike continues."

The union and the grocery chains are far apart on benefits, wage premiums and other issues. Each side said it was waiting for the other to call for talks to restart.

"There isn't anything moving yet," Icaza said. "There isn't any point until they move off their proposal."

The union and the supermarket chains are at odds over a proposal by the companies to slash health benefits, among other things.

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Times staff writer Melinda Fulmer contributed to this report.

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