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Probe Seeks Aid of Ralphs Clerks

U.S. offers immunity to locked-out employees who worked under false names last winter.

September 18, 2004|From Associated Press

Ralphs Grocery Co. workers who crossed picket lines and worked under false names and Social Security numbers during last winter's lockout could get immunity from prosecution if they cooperate with federal investigators, according to a letter the grocery chain sent this week to employees.

Ralphs told the employees it would not take disciplinary action against hourly workers who falsified information if they voluntarily identified themselves to its legal department.

The letter, obtained and reported by the Orange County Register, also included a separate note from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles saying that it wouldn't prosecute any locked-out grocery clerks as long as they worked with its attorneys.

The U.S. attorney's office may be looking to gather testimony from workers that could help prosecutors bring criminal indictments and win convictions against managers and executives of the grocery chain, labor experts said.

"You need to get witnesses to come forward to say how these arrangements were made and how workers were enabled to continue to work," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

Prosecutors are probably probing "how far up the management chain the sanction for this conduct was given," Wong said.

Ralphs, owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., acknowledged in a July letter to its employees that some store managers allowed locked-out grocery clerks to work during the 141-day Southern California grocery strike in violation of the company's own policies.

If the chain is found to have violated federal labor, tax or Social Security laws, it could be ordered to pay back wages to its 20,000 employees who were locked out, possibly at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition, the company could be fined. It's also possible that one or more of the company's managers or executives could face criminal indictments.

Union leaders ordered the strike against Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions chains Oct. 11. Albertsons Inc. stores and Ralphs then locked out their employees. In all, about 59,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union were idled at 859 stores.

The strike lasted 4 1/2 months, cost store owners more than $2 billion by some estimates and resulted in the permanent loss of many customers.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE --- A correction ran December 6, 2003 stating that 852 stores were affected by the strike, not 859. Here is the full text of the 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.

--- END NOTE ---

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