Bay Area Grocery Locals Must Overcome Hurdles To Avoid Southern California’s Concessions
In the wake of the southern California strike, clerks in eight United Food and Commercial Workers locals in northern California face a day of reckoning September 11, the day their contracts expire.
Another 21,000 clerks in northern California, in Local 588, have a separate contract expiration date of July 17. Pressure is as intense from the company to surrender as it is from UFCW International leaders to capitulate.
PREPARING FOR A FIGHT
The Bay Area locals feel they do not have to follow the wave of concessions that are hitting the retail industry nationwide and are planning for a hard fight with the companies. The Bay Area Coalition (BAC—a coalition of the eight locals) has within the last few years taken on a greater role in forward planning for the tough bargaining environment we now face.
The BAC has developed a confrontational strategy with the employers long before their contract expiration date. They have pooled resources and hired organizers and corporate campaigners to prepare the members for the tough fight that they know is coming.
Through building coalitions with religious groups and labor organizations they have increased their power and ability to bargain fairly with the employer.
Another aspect of the BAC strategy is to try to tie the many contracts coming up for renewal nationwide into the powerful negotiating tool that it should be. They have had little luck convincing the UFCW International, but a meeting with the International next month might prove effective in tying together contracts west of the Rocky Mountains.
Negotiations have not reached the local level, but the employers have been talking to the International about their perceived needs over the last two years.
Once strong, the coalition of Bay Area unions had significantly weakened over the years. The 1990s saw a significant decrease in its ability to work together. Many view the reason for this defect as the rise to power of senior UFCW International Vice President Jack Loveall.
Loveall took over UFCW 588 in California in 1984 and grew the size of his local to some 22,000 members, through a series of mergers and acquisitions of local unions that some viewed as heavy-handed.
Loveall was able to push the BAC aside in the 1990s, becoming chief negotiator and spokesman for the UFCW in northern California. He has negotiated contracts without the usual collective input of all the Bay Area locals.
An eight-day strike in 1995 ended with a contract rollover negotiated by Loveall. Many on the picket lines were left scratching their heads, wondering how they could end up with nothing after such a successful strike action.
Food industry negotiations ended in 1997 before they effectively started, with Loveall announcing an early closed-door settlement with Safeway and Lucky stores.
Wage and benefit improvements in 1997 were negotiated, but many viewed them as being paid for out of our pension fund, with the employers given a multi-year pension fund holiday.
Deferred contributions were split between the company and the workers; the companies got 85 percent and the employees 15 percent.
The long pension fund holiday has left our pension in a seriously underfunded state—with the employers certain to take the line that benefits must be reduced to stave off higher contributions.
Loveall allowed the employers to burn off a huge reserve in our health and welfare fund, which has decimated our ability to cushion the effect of rising health costs. While ignoring the collective power of 35,000 Bay Area members, he takes credit for negotiating many things we have had for years.
In 2001’s contract negotiations Loveall again negotiated and settled before the Bay Area locals.
The Bay Area Coalition said, “The contract settlement reached by Local 588 does not in any way determine the outcome of pending Northern California supermarket negotiations. It does not address the economic and other needs of our 35,000 members, and fails to address the priorities they have set.”
The Bay locals hung together and negotiated together, looking for improvements in wages, when the events of September 11 came along and upset the balance. The BAC was only able to muster a 61 percent strike vote, with many members cowed by the national mood. Despite that, the BAC was able to win 22 significant improvements in contract language.
As things stand today, all bets are off. Some leaders in the BAC speculate that Loveall has already negotiated his contract with the employer and stands ready to pull the rug out from under the Bay Area locals again.
Again, our power seems ready to be squandered at the hands of union officials are far removed from their members. Again, a chance at building a powerful national contract may be lost—unless members and locals can build an effective and strong campaign.
Vincent Bourbourg is a 20-year rank-and-file member of the UFCW and has been active in retail politics for 15 years.