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Grocery Workers in Bay Area Hope to Avoid Strike

September 23, 2004|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — After watching the grocery strike in Southern California drag on for 4 1/2 months, supermarket cashier Josef Emami feared the worst as his union began contract negotiations in the Bay Area a couple of weeks ago.

So he hedged his bets, deciding to sock away some savings and preparing to let the lease on his apartment lapse.

If a strike is called and money gets tight, Emami explained this week before starting his shift at a Safeway Inc. store here, he figures he can "couch-hop with friends or stay at my parents' house for a while."

Yet for all the angst and advance planning, the biggest lesson learned from the labor unrest in Southern and Central California may be this: The best thing for union members and management alike would be to find a way to avoid a walkout.

In fact, many observers are hopeful that a clash can be averted.

The last Bay Area contract between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the major supermarket chains -- Safeway, Kroger Co. and Albertsons Inc. -- expired Sept. 11, and the two sides are continuing to talk. The pact covers about 30,000 workers at the 382 stores.

So far, the chains have extended their contract with workers during negotiations, and no formal proposals have yet been presented by either side. Separate talks covering 15,000 grocery workers in the Sacramento area also are underway.

"I'm feeling kind of optimistic," said grocery checker Salley Faye, after finishing her work Tuesday at a Kroger-owned Bell market in San Francisco.

The companies certainly have good reason not to let things get so contentious this time around.

Although the supermarkets won huge concessions in Southern California -- creating a two-tier pay system in which new hires earn substantially less in wages and benefits than veteran workers -- the strike and lockout that ended Feb. 29 were economically devastating for them.

All three chains have seen their bottom lines continue to suffer from the lingering effects of the situation as customers altered their shopping patterns. Albertsons posted a 36% drop in its latest quarterly profit, while Kroger's fell 25% and Safeway's was off 4%.

"The supermarkets have taken a bigger hit, and the damage has been more long lasting than they thought," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues. "The chains are leery of provoking another strike."

If nothing else, their tone seems softer now.

"All negotiations are unique," said Kroger spokesman Terry O'Neil. "It's our goal to be able to reach an agreement peacefully."

Safeway Executive Vice President Larree Renda agreed. "Each agreement is based on what is happening in that marketplace," Renda said. "Nobody wants to repeat the past here" in Northern California.

Since the Southern California labor dispute ended, Safeway has inked new deals with UFCW workers in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix without incurring a strike. The Seattle accord even allows new hires to eventually rise to the pay level of experienced workers.

"The unions have bargained very effectively in subsequent negotiations," Shaiken said.

Ron Lind is president of UFCW San Jose Local 428, one of eight locals negotiating jointly in the Bay Area. He's optimistic that the painful effects of the Southern California labor dispute will soften the chains' "thirst for concessions."

Still, he and other labor leaders say they're prepared to play hardball, should things come to that.

After watching all the hardship endured by 59,000 idled Southern and Central California grocery workers, union officials here stressed that they already have taken steps to drum up public support.

Two months ago, grocery workers began canvassing outside Bay Area stores, asking customers to sign pledge cards and agree not to shop at those locations in the event of a strike. About 60,000 names have been collected from shoppers.

This week, Debra Talcott, a 27-year Safeway veteran, was busy getting customers to sign the boycott pledge.

Talcott, a health and beauty department manager at a Safeway in Foster City, said she would gladly walk a picket line if a two-tier pay system was demanded by the supermarkets. And she expects that others would follow. "Either we are in this together, or we're not in it," she said.

Swallowing the terms accepted by her counterparts in Los Angeles, Talcott made clear, would be unacceptable. "Our wages up here are minimal to start with," she said.

Another issue likely to emerge as a key to the Bay Area negotiations is medical benefits. Union grocery workers now make co-payments for doctor visits but do not have medical premiums deducted from their paychecks.

Some grocery workers acknowledge that their health coverage may have to change to keep up with rising costs. "I'm not saying we shouldn't have to pay something," Faye said.

Still, she and other grocery workers say they can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars a month for medical insurance.

Of course, if the chains were pressing workers to pay only an extra $5 in premiums a week, as they claimed in Southern California, that might be a different story.

"We'd be out of those negotiations with a settlement in about six seconds," said Safeway stocker Bill Sable, who sits on the union's negotiating board.

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