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Grocery union has fresh plans

October 28, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Hirsch is a Times staff writer.

Five years ago, the union representing Southern California supermarket workers was a mess.

The union locals were nearly bankrupt, members were quitting by the thousands, and the workers had just swallowed some of the biggest concessions ever in the recent Southern California labor movement. The 141-day strike and lockout that ended in 2004 turned grocery shopping into chaos, frustrated shoppers and brought the United Food and Commercial Workers union to its knees.

But today a resurgent UFCW is scoring bargaining and organizing gains throughout California. And it's aiming for a coup: It hopes to organize workers at nonunion Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, the British operator opening hundreds of small grocery stores in California and the Southwest.

"The strike was a real wake-up call," said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

"Prior to that there was a lot of complacency in the UFCW, but since then we have seen some large shifts in the union both in California and nationally."

Over the last 18 months, the UFCW negotiated a long-term contract that won back many of the concessions made in 2004.

It organized a group of nonunion supermarkets in Central and Northern California and gained a beachhead in a yearlong effort to bargain with Fresh & Easy.

"They have done a nice job making gains in an environment that is not as favorable to labor as it has been in the past," said Dave Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management.

Still bruised by the 2003-04 strike and lockout, union members got some satisfaction last month when a federal grand jury returned indictments of eight current and former managers of Ralphs Grocery Co., charging five with developing a scheme to illegally rehire hundreds of locked-out workers to prolong the work stoppage.

"Those indictments really brought morale back up," said Bobby Sabedra, a Ralphs meat cutter from Ventura and longtime union member working on the Fresh & Easy organizing campaign.

In Central and Northern California, Jacobs said, the union has consolidated locals, allowing for more-strategic bargaining and better organizing.

Nationally, the UFCW is putting more money and energy into organizing and is doing a better job coordinating collective bargaining among regions. "This is a big change for a union that has historically been very decentralized," Jacobs said.

The big chains and the union are working better together to jointly protect their turf. They quickly reached an agreement over the summer, for instance, on a contract for a set of new small grocery stores that Vons owner Safeway Inc. plans.

Much of the "bad blood" that existed at the end of the 2003-04 strike and lockout "has dissipated," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, who calls labor-employer relations "good, but guarded."

The labor peace extends northward up through the San Joaquin Valley into Northern California. Over the last year, the UFCW won contracts for workers at about two dozen Central and Northern California stores owned by Save Mart Supermarkets, the Modesto company that owns the Lucky, Save Mart, S-Mart and FoodMaxx brands.

"We don't always agree, but we listen and resolve things that in the past were not possible," said Rick Silva, Save Mart's senior director of employee and labor relations.

SuperValu Inc., the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based owner of Albertsons, also acknowledged a greater degree of labor peace. "We have a strong working relationship with the seven UFCW union locals in Southern California," said Stephanie Martin, spokeswoman for SuperValu's West region.

Union members express a sense of relief at the improvement in labor relations.

"We are coming back," said Jennifer Riddagh, who works at a Vons store in Thousand Oaks. "Things are pretty good right now."

Riddagh said she was especially pleased with the efforts to organize the nonunion chains.

But the sentiments aren't all positive.

Gil Cottrell, who has spent 35 years in the union and works at the Newport Beach Gelson's, remains suspicious of union leadership.

"The union reps never come to the stores. They don't want to talk to us because they don't want to hear our complaints," said Cottrell, who's also concerned about what he thinks is too-small pension fund contributions by the employers.

Now the union is heading into a battle that will be fought throughout California and into Arizona and Nevada -- the organizing of Fresh & Easy, the rapidly growing chain owned by British retailing giant Tesco.

The company has said it is prepared to spend $2 billion over five years to crack the U.S. market. During the last year, it has opened 48 small grocery stores in Southern California and an additional 49 in Phoenix and Las Vegas areas and is planning an expansion into Northern California.

In all, Fresh & Easy expects to have 200 stores open in the three states by the end of February, said marketing chief Simon Uwins.

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