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How the Supermarket Strike Was Settled

March 08, 2004|James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writer

While most of California slept, the longest supermarket strike in U.S. history was settled in Steve Stemerman's hotel room.

It was 3 a.m. Feb. 23 when Stemerman, the United Food and Commercial Workers union's lead negotiator, and one of his colleagues huddled at the Hyatt Newporter with representatives of the three national supermarket companies whose insistence on slashing their labor costs had persuaded the union to strike.

The five men had been bargaining in various locales at the Newporter for 13 straight days, on this day alone for more than 13 hours. They were haggard, fed up with room service coffee and casually dressed; any need for ties had long since passed.

Moments before they shook hands on a deal, Stemerman had noticed that two of the supermarket reps were sitting on the bed, and he couldn't resist joking about "the union getting into bed with the employers."

Many of the tens of thousands of grocery store workers returning to their jobs would probably see more than a grain of truth in that teasing remark. The contract the negotiators crafted has been widely viewed as a victory for the supermarkets, especially because it includes a two-tier system under which stores will pay new hires much less in wages and benefits than veteran workers.

But an inside look at the long-running contract talks shows that for all of the supermarkets' gains, the UFCW hung tough and scored a few points, too. Veterans won't have to pay for part of their healthcare coverage for at least two years, and the supermarkets lost their bid to significantly pare workers' overall healthcare and pension coverage.

"We achieved more than we ever expected we would," said a union official, although he added, "I'm not saying we didn't compromise on benefit levels."

The 59,000 union members who went on strike or were locked out in October never knew how their officials were faring during the 4 1/2-month ordeal. Peter J. Hurtgen, the federal mediator brokering the talks, imposed a news blackout that was generally honored.

It wasn't until three days after the five men shook hands in Stemerman's room that the settlement deal was finalized and made public. UFCW members ratified the contract over the last weekend in February, and in recent days have begun going back to their jobs at 852 Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons and Pavilions stores in Central and Southern California.

From interviews with negotiators and others, all of whom asked not to be named, The Times pieced together what occurred as the UFCW struggled for 20 weeks to ink a settlement with the supermarket companies: Safeway Inc., parent of Vons and Pavilions; Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs; and Albertsons Inc.

Union officials had expected contract talks to be difficult, but once negotiations started they were surprised at how intransigent the supermarkets were. The companies were committed to installing the two-tier system and wanted to cap their contributions to workers' healthcare plans at a set amount.

For their part, the companies believed that the UFCW thought a strike leading into the holidays would cripple the stores. Union officials "couldn't wait to get the strike started, because they thought it would bring us to our knees in less than two weeks," one person close to the supermarkets said.

The talks were at times taxing, confusing and unwieldy. Negotiators spent weeks away from home. Many had to decide whether to buy new clothes or keep paying stiff hotel fees for laundry service. During some marathon sessions, participants would slip away for 15-minute catnaps in their rooms.

With seven union locals, three supermarket chains, a mediator and support staffs involved, more than 40 people often were assembled for a bargaining session under one roof.

And the roof kept changing. Unable to make advance reservations, the teams could tie up a hotel's conference rooms -- and book rooms for each member -- for only so long. During the final 16 days of continuous talks, the teams moved from the Sheraton in Cerritos to the Hyatt in Garden Grove and, finally, to the Hyatt in Newport Beach.

"We were like Osama bin Laden," one team member said. "We kept moving every four days or so."

As the strike and lockout dragged on, and negotiating sessions were held in fits and starts, the costs mounted on both sides. Grocery workers tried to live off dwindling strike-pay funds and the supermarkets together were racking up about $10 million in lost sales every day.

But at the table, negotiators kept their cool. No one stomped out of the room or swore at an opponent. Despite the financial weight on union members, "there was never pressure to get this done at any cost," one UFCW official said.

Sometimes when bargainers were alone with the federal mediator, "it did get a little raw toward the other side," one participant said. But at the table, another said, "there was nothing resembling hard feelings directed at any individual."

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