A chilly, high desert dawn was breaking as the workers trickled onto the sprawling grounds of Rite Aid Corp.'s distribution warehouse, a behemoth box at the edge of the Mojave.
Awaiting them outside was a makeshift table set with hot coffee and doughnuts, courtesy of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. Employees donning yellow union T-shirts briefly savored a hard-won triumph as they continue a bitter, three-year-plus campaign.
"I'm glad to be back. I need the job," said Virgilia Mondragon, one of dozens returning to work after the union alleged they were fired illegally from the Lancaster facility.
Rite Aid's decision last month to reinstate as many as 46 employees dismissed after an acrimonious union organizing drive is the latest chapter in a divisive saga that has made the Lancaster warehouse a national symbol of organized labor's priority: passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would ease the way for workers to join unions.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Rite Aid: An article in the Business section July 9 about union organizing efforts at Rite Aid Corp.'s distribution center in Lancaster implied that the company had fired 46 employees because of their organizing efforts. Rite Aid said the workers were laid off because of a reduced workload at the warehouse facility. A photo caption accompanying the story also misidentified Jeremy Edwards as a Rite Aid worker. He is a union organizer.
According to labor activists, Rite Aid's anti-union onslaught has included intimidation, misinformation and illegal terminations, along with bad-faith bargaining.
Key parts of the Employee Free Choice Act would greatly enhance penalties against employers engaged in unlawful practices, while mandating federal mediation in initial contract talks.
Rite Aid denies any wrongdoing. From management's perspective, the warehouse war in L.A.'s parched suburban outpost epitomizes a misguided and intransigent labor movement pushing impossible demands in the midst of a recession. The drugstore giant boasts that almost one-third of its national workforce of more than 100,000 is unionized -- evidence, Rite Aid says, of its readiness to deal with union shops.
"If the union really wanted an agreement, we would have one by now," said Cheryl Slavinsky, chief spokeswoman for Rite Aid. "But it seems at every turn, the union tries to come up with allegations against Rite Aid to generate public sympathy."
The Camp Hill, Pa., company, with 4,800 stores and annual sales topping $26 billion, is struggling in a tough retail environment, reporting a loss of $98 million for its latest quarter that ended May 30. Its stock, which traded near $7 two years ago, has fallen sharply, closing Wednesday at $1.31.
The Rite Aid Southwest Customer Support Center, as the Lancaster site is known, is the daily destination of vast quantities of merchandise, much of it from China, entering by truck from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Inside the 1-million-square-foot complex, about 700 workers unload, sort and pack products for shipment to hundreds of Rite Aid stores, mostly in Southern California.
Angela Warner said she began working there for $10.80 an hour almost a decade ago. "When we started, it was a great place to work," said Warner, 49.
The conditions, said Warner, a union supporter, soon deteriorated: Managers trimmed breaks, demanded more hours for less pay and began enforcing difficult production quotas. Still, an organizing drive by the Teamsters failed in 2002.
"The union turned me off," said Carlos Rubio, a Rite Aid worker since 2000 who opposed the Teamsters thrust. His hostility to unions softened, Rubio said, after he injured his back shifting a sack of cat food and got little sympathy from management.
In March 2006, several workers contacted the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, igniting a new union drive.
Pay isn't the top issue in a plant where experienced workers can earn as much as $17 an hour, a substantial salary in the Antelope Valley, which has been hard hit by the burst housing bubble. Instead, union advocates say they must endure punishing production goals, insufficient breaks, mandatory overtime and disparate temperatures -- extreme heat in the summer and freezing winters. Strict rules govern the time allotted for such tasks as moving or packing boxes, even walking from one end of the plant to another.
Management says workers in Lancaster are treated respectfully and in accordance with industry standards. The company points to the facility's 368 high-speed fans and coolers, controlled by workers, along with a heating system. "They have switches to turn them on and off," Rite Aid's Slavinsky said.
According to the union, Rite Aid threatened, intimidated and fired dozens of workers during an anti-union blitz that began in 2006. Responding to a union complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the company agreed in May 2007 to reinstate two prominent union supporters, give them back pay and post a notice vowing not to violate federal laws protecting union organizing. Rite Aid didn't admit any wrongdoing.
"I wish that Rite Aid were the exception, but it's really the rule with what's happening all over the U.S. when workers try to organize," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University who wrote a recent study documenting employer threats and retaliation against union sympathizers.