Two-Tiered Grocery Contract Leaves Anger, Questions

On the last day of February, striking and locked-out grocery workers in Southern California ended their stand against Safeway-owned Vons/Pavillions, Albertsons, and Kroger-owned Ralphs chains.

The new two-tiered contract and the UFCW leadership’s handling of the strike have angered many rank- and-file grocery workers who, along with new-hires, will pay a steep price during the three-year contract and possibly beyond. But there are some indications that their frustration may lead to greater involvement in the union.

“I have a question,” said Shannon Donato, director of the Harry Bridges Institute and Community Labor Center in Los Angeles. “Why didn’t the national campaign start earlier? Who pushed them away?”

Bill Pearson, former president of UFCW Local 789 in Minnesota and a close observer of the strike, described an Ocean City, Maryland meeting he attended in late 2001, between 100 UFCW local presidents, the International leadership, and representatives from Safeway, Albertsons, Kroger, and Ahold.

According to Pearson, the grocery companies announced that they wanted a two-tier system in the stores. If the union gave them that, the companies promised, there would be no labor war.

“Almost to a person,” remembers Pearson, “the local presidents said ‘No!’ The international leadership knew a strike was coming almost two years ago. Why wasn’t it dealt with on the convention floor?”

SUCCESS?

“They got two-tier,” Lonnie Hardy, a rank-and-file member of Local 1036 in Bakersfield, said with deep frustration. “Everything we were going against, they got. When you stay out for five months, you want to gain something, not lose what you had.”

Former UFCW President Douglas Dority (who resigned shortly after the settlement) called the strike “the most successful strike in history,” drawing skeptical responses from members and strike observers.

Perhaps most importantly, the contract introduces a two-tier wage and benefit system. More specifically:

• Workers will pay a premium for their health insurance for the first time. These payments, which will not begin until year three of the contract, will be $5/week for individuals, $10/week for a worker with children, and $15/week for a worker, spouse, and children.

TWO TIERS ON HEALTH

• The companies’ contributions to the health benefits fund, jointly administered with the union, have been capped. Workers could potentially see premiums increase if health care costs rise, especially as the replacement of long-time workers with new-hires further depletes the health fund.

• The companies contribute just $1.10 to the health benefit fund per hour worked by a new-hire and $3.80/hour for current employees. Each new-hire is required to pay a premium equal to 20 percent of what it costs the company to insure them.

• The employer will contribute 35 percent less per hour towards the pension plans of current employees. New-hires will see a 65 percent cut.

• Current “journeyman food clerks” can reach an upper wage of $17.10/hour. New-hires will start at $8.90/hour and can rise to, at best, $15.10.

• Employees who receive promotions automatically come in at the lower-tier wage for whatever job they were “promoted” to.

The grocery chains had sought unlimited vendor shelf stocking. The new contract allows for limited vendor shelf stocking and includes a twist. Under the old contract, explained Don Ely of UFCW Local 1442, only workers classified as “food clerks” could replace stock on shelves that have gone empty between vendor deliveries.

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Under the new contract, “general merchandise clerks,” who make four dollars less an hour than food clerks and tend to be newer, younger workers, can now re-stock store shelves.

Hearing this, 25-year Northern California Local 588 member Scott Schroeder worried that the new rule “puts a target on us long-time people.”

FALL-OUT

Matt Hart, a steward with UFCW Local 324, confirmed that the strike settlement gave the companies “a 21-day period to do whatever is necessary to get the stores up and running again. In regard to hours and logistics in the store,” he explained, “they can do what they want.”

Besides punishing militancy on the picket line by transferring workers, Hart said, 80 members of the seven involved locals, including himself, have been suspended from work.

“I have heard from workers that they are scheduling people in a way that is horrendous,” said Donato. “Managers used to work with people to help with employees’ scheduling needs. That working relationship is gone.”

Hardy, who voted “no” on the contract, expressed frustration with the many co-workers he said voted “yes” without hearing the contract’s provisions. “They’re just voting to get back to work,” he said, “and that’s sad…You have to care about your future.”

“Why are you going to give up those five months for nothing?” Wilson asked. “When we went to get the contract and vote, the representatives were handing out ballots and telling people to just vote ‘yes’ because the contract was not going to get any better.”

“We are in a bitter, angry mood,” Wilson added.

Recent reports indicate a determination by Northern California UFCW locals to fight the concessions made by union leaders in the south. The Sacramento Bee quoted Jacques Loveall, president of Sacramento Local 588, as saying that two-tier “is something we’re going to resist.” Local 588’s contract expires on July 17.

The seven other Northern California locals, whose contracts expire September 11, have scheduled a joint organizing and training meeting for March 14.

Officials and rank-and-file members will meet to strategize for their upcoming fight. The meeting will include training for rank-and-file members on how to communicate with each other about contract issues.

In a letter sent to Seattle Local 1105 members, President Sharon L. McCann said the 25,000 members of the Puget Sound locals have a message for the employers: “Do not bring the Southern California settlement here; we will not ignore future employees as it will affect us all in a very short period of time. We’re ready…”

IMPACT ON THE UNION

Donato said she knew of workers who have decided to organize within their own stores, holding meetings and talking about the strike and the union. Some plan to attend union meetings for the first time. “This attack has made a lot of those who survived it into good union members,” she observed. “They no longer identify themselves as company employees. They are now part of the labor movement.”

“Before the strike, I had no affiliation with the union besides paying dues,” observed Katherine Lowan, a member of UFCW Local 1442. “Now I’m so interested in what the union does. I saw our money in action.” Others view the use of that money differently. “I didn’t feel well prepared for the strike,” Hardy said. “They knew it would be a long one. The companies told them that.”

“The union sold us out,” Wilson said angrily. “I’m ready to write a letter to the people who did the negotiating and say, ‘You didn’t do anything for us. We want you voted out. We need new blood who will negotiate for us.’” She plans to “go store to store to talk with every shop steward” to get signatures for the letter.

“I’m the one who runs around work yelling at people to get their heads out of the sand,” Schroeder said. “People have gotten so complacent that the unions have been able to take advantage of that. We need to get involved or we’ll be in trouble!”