Will they strike or won't they?
Even though Southern California grocery workers have given their union the go-ahead to call a strike, that doesn't mean a walkout or an employer lockout is imminent, Wall Street analysts and labor experts said Monday. Sunday's strike authorization vote may even help jump-start stalled talks toward a resolution, they said.
It's all part of a high-stakes, elaborately choreographed form of theater seen when a supermarket employment contract comes up for renewal. But there are some differences in strategy this time.
The Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons chains may have been looking for a sign of just how committed the union's rank and file were to the idea of another potentially devastating work stoppage, observers said. That would give the grocers a better sense of how hard they could push for more concessions in contract negotiations, which broke off last week.
Talks have bogged down over wage and health insurance issues.
For its part, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is following a new script. There have been no loud parking-lot rallies in front of supermarket shoppers. Union officials have stayed out of the public eye, opting for telephone news conferences attended by carefully selected workers telling their own stories.
The change partly reflects the union's formal break with the AFL-CIO in June 2005 and its jump to the Change to Win federation, experts said.
During the 2003-04 strike and lockout, the union received national labor movement support, but mostly after the grocery workers were already on the defensive, said Richard W. Hurd, a professor of labor studies at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Now, as part of Change to Win, the Southern California operation is getting more help upfront from national union officials in planning strategies, he said.
"Rallies can send a message, but rallies do not win public support," Hurd said. "The workers themselves have a more convincing message to the public than union officials have. They get more notice and more sympathy than union bosses. It makes sense for them to do it this way, and it helps the public better understand the message."
Another change has been in the use of local religious and community leaders.
In 2003-04, those leaders backed the workers by staging rallies and parking-lot sermons reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. This time they have been more quietly employed in weekend neighborhood canvassing, shaking hands and handing out pamphlets, asking residents to avoid the chains if a strike or a lockout occurs.
"They are clearly using a different approach," Hurd said. "Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to have religious leaders holding rallies and sometimes it doesn't."
The new approach appears to acknowledge that shoppers might lose their patience with another bitter labor impasse much sooner than they did last time, during the 141-day strike and lockout that left many union members with staggering debts and cost the employers an estimated $1.5 billion.
"Once you start holding parking-lot rallies, you begin addressing customers in a very physical way," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley. "They are proceeding more carefully this time around. I think this was a vote meant to speed up, and not torpedo, the negotiations. It is a signal: If you think the union is too weak or hesitant, think again."
The union has coalesced around how much its members have suffered through the healthcare agreement from the last contract, said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. Half of those hired since the strike and lockout have no health insurance, one-third are covered by a spouse or a parent, and 10% rely on public health programs, he said. Just 7% of recent hires are getting insurance from the chains.
"We ran simulations, but none of us figured it would be this bad," Jacobs said.
At a telephone news conference Monday, grocery worker Karie Lasko, a 36-year employee at Albertsons, described the burden: "I now see workers who are on state assistance for healthcare. I have never seen that before in my life. The grocery stores had always been able to provide coverage for their workers."
The three supermarket chains said Monday that they hoped to return to the bargaining table this week. People familiar with the negotiations said talks could resume as early as Wednesday.
"It bears repeating that both sides have acknowledged significant progress since the start of negotiations on core economic issues," the employers said in a statement. "When the unions are ready to resume negotiations, we are ready to continue with the important negotiations at hand."