Tag Archives: UFCW

Supermarket Swindle: Brave New Films Joins the Grocery Worker Fight

(cross-posted from Working Californians)

We have gained an amazing new partner in the fight for a fair contract for the grocery workers.  Brave New Films, of “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Living” fame has created a new online campaign to help tell the story of the grocery workers and collect pledges from customers not to shop at the Vons, Raphs or Albertsons if they force a lockout or a strike.  Here is the first video:

You can sign the pledge here.

This is only the first of a series of worker profiles to help tell the story of working under a two-tier wage structure, or going without health insurance, not getting a raise for four years while the CEO’s salaries rose 216%.  As Robert Greenwald put it in a conference call, this is a campaign to “convince the gang of three that fairness is a value”.  He wants to “hold their feet to the fire until that happens.”

Brave New Films is giving these loyal and hard working employees a voice, like Charles Bingham, who is featured in this first clip.  Charles was born with an eye condition and he developed an infection while working at Ralphs.  Unfortunately, he was hired after the the strike and thus, despite having worked for the company for over 8 months, did not have health insurance.  He ended up going to the hospital, but left with a $8,000 bill, forcing him to declare bankruptcy.  His debt has now caused him to have to move out of his studio apartment and into a hotel.  If he had been cover like all workers were before the strike, this never would have happened.

Then there is Javier Ybarra, who has seen the power of his pay check demising over the years and now finds it “tragic” to work beside colleagues who are earning even less than him.  He works pay check to paycheck and “I scratch my head as I look over to my colleagues and wonder how they do it.” 

They now half jokingly refer to the lower tier workers as the B-Team, because it is second class.  Those post strike hired workers find a hard time being motivated to work hard compared to their coworkers who are making more.  They are now earning just a few cents over minimum wage.  They could go elsewhere, but as one worker on the call put it, then somebody else would just get hired.  It could be his son.  Instead he said defiantly, “somebody has to stand up and say something about that.”  He is standing up and now has an outlet for his voice.

Go watch the video and send it around to your friends and family.  I will be sure to post all of the new videos as the come out and track the progress of the “Supermarket Swindle” campaign.

SoCal Grocery Workers Vote for Strike

I just knew this was coming. I knew it was coming. Get ready for another strike at a Vons, Ralphs, and/or Albertsons near you. (From LA Times)

Southern California grocery workers voted Sunday to give their union the right to strike if negotiations for a new contract fail. Union officials said the measure passed by an overwhelming 95%.

Contract talks between the United Food and Commercial Workers [UFCW] union and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons over a new agreement for 65,000 workers from Bakersfield to the Mexican border broke off late last week. Sunday’s strike authorization vote was set by the union after the grocery chains failed to meet a Thursday deadline for a formal offer.

So what exactly happened? Why couldn’t an agreement be reached? What’s at stake for the grocery companies? What’s at stake for the grocery workers? And what happens next? Follow me after the flip for more…

So why couldn’t an agreement be reached? The OC Register explains:

At issue are health benefits, pensions and adding a lower payment scale for employees, who say they haven’t had a raise since 2002. A representative for the grocery companies called the vote premature and said store officials remain hopeful that they will get back to the bargaining table this week.

Oh, so the vote is “premature”? And the stores are hopeful that they will “get back to the bargaining table this week”? Well, why couldn’t they just work out a fair agreement from the bargaining table to start with? They could avoided all the risk of another strike with a fair agreement.

Take a look at this fact sheet from the UFCW. Profits for the stores have been better than ever, yet the corporate executives at Ralphs (Kroger), Vons (Safeway), and Albertsons (Supervalu) refuse to share any with the workers. The store executives always whine about Wal-Mart and Costco eating away at their market share, yet Wal-Mart and Costco COMBINED only control about 8% of the Southern California market. THAT’S ACTUALLY LESS MARKET SHARE THAN WAL-MART AND COSTCO HAD IN 2003, when the grocery companies were claiming that they need to cut workers’ wages and benefits in order to remain competitive against Wal-Mart and Costco. Yet even though all the workers worked so hard after returning from the 2003-2004 strike to rehabilitate the supermarkets, the grocery companies not only refuse to give them any thanks, but they won’t even give the workers the fair wages and benefits that they should have been given in 2003.

No wonder why workers were so ready yesterday to approve the strike. (From OC Register)

Union workers, still feeling the effects of a five-month strike ending in March 2004, said they are willing to take the risk of a walkout. Debbie Johnson, a mother of four who has worked at the Vons in Huntington Beach for 27 years, said she’s ready to rely on her husband’s paycheck for a while.

“I’m tired of playing the game that goes back and forth,” Johnson said. “There are other jobs out there. I could go anywhere and not have to do all the (work) I do now.” […]

Eddie Davalos, a dairy department supervisor at an Albertsons in La Habra, said he decided to stay at the company for 15 years because of the good benefits. Under the proposed contract, the co-payments for his three kids’ medical visits would go from $25 to $50, he said.

“I feel like it’s a slap in the face,” Davalos said.

Yep, it really is a slap in the face. These workers are struggling just to keep their heads above water. They’re just trying to put some food on their family tables after helping us bring food to our family tables. However, the grocery company CEOs are enjoying record compensation as the companies are reaping in healthy profits. So why can’t the workers just get some decent wages and benefits?

Something needs to be done.

So what can we do about this? What can we do to support the workers as they demand a fair contract? Well, we can start by signing the pledge to take your business elsewhere as the companies are forcing this strike to happen. And since we’re not shopping at the stores that aren’t respecting their workers, we might as well use the store finder to locate nearby grocery stores that are respecting their workers. We can also share these flyers with our friends, family, and neighbors, letting them know what’s at stake for the workers.

Whether or not we ourselves are part of the UFCW, these workers are our friends. They are our brothers and sisters in solidarity. Let’s show them some.

Grocery Contract Update

(cross-posted from Working Californians)

We have now officially moved into the auto-renewal phase of the contract.  It will continually renew the temporary contract extension until one of the two parties gives 72 hours notice that they are pulling out.  The next meeting is set for the 16th and the UFCW has announced that they do not plan to cancel the extension this week.

The LA County Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, the Screen Acters Guild, Teamsters, CWA, SEIU, AFT and several other unions announced that they have sanctioned a USFC strike request.  That means that the 800,000+ members will honor the picket line in the event of a work stoppage through a strike authorization or lockout.

Maria Elana Durazo at the LA Labor Fed:

Workers throughout Los Angeles have made a commitment today, to stand in solidarity with our grocery workers in their fight to make their jobs, good middle class jobs again.  No Longer will we tolerate companies, who in their race to make more profits, are destroying what once made this city great, a strong middle class.

In granting a strike sanction, the Federation will support the grocery workers in various forms including picket line support, rallies, demonstrations, boycotts, food drives for strikers and coordinating public officials, unions and community support.

Robert Turner:

As an International Representative for the Teamsters, I can tell you this, we will not cross a picket line.  It wouldn’t be morally right to go against workers who work hard to make businesses profitable, but have no health care and struggle to provide for their families.

Elliot reminds us of what happened during the last labor dispute over at the Courage Campaign.

About 8,000 Teamsters tractor-trailer drivers and warehouse employees refused to cross the picket lines during the last Southern California supermarket labor dispute three years ago, forcing the markets to hire replacement workers to keep their supply lines flowing.

You should have seen the store managers trying to back an 18-wheeler into the stores’ loading dock.  Pure comedy.

Hopefully it will not come to that, but it does, there will be hundreds and thousands of people who have their back.

Grocery Workers Contract Update

Just in from the UFCW:

Last Wednesday, in the middle of negotiations and with no notice whatsoever to our union negotiators, Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons announced to the press their intention to punish their workers and customers by locking out all of their employees if a limited strike is called against any of the markets.

Despite this needless provocation and attempt to intimidate us, we are still committed to working out our differences and getting an agreement at the bargaining table. That is why we agreed to resume negotiations with the employers after a cooling-off period suggested by the federal mediator.

Ultimately, we consider the employers’ threats and intimidation a sign of desperation. They know that public opinion and momentum are on our side, and this latest move is simply a heavy-handed attempt to shift blame.

The chains used the same tactic of locking out employees during the last strike.  Pretty interesting that they appear to understand the concept of strength through unity, no?  But even more interesting is how the UFCW is counteracting this (on the flip):

The Markets: “Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons are each negotiating individual contracts with each of the seven UFCW locals — a total of 21 separate contracts.”

The Truth: UFCW is negotiating with each of the markets separately to prevent them from forming potentially illegal “mutual aid pacts” like they did in 2003, a scheme still under investigation by the California Attorney General. The claimed 21 separate meetings are unnecessary and the markets demanded this as a delaying tactic. Stater Bros. and Gelsons negotiated fair contracts with UFCW without meeting each local separately, and if they could do it, so can Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs.

We know that April 9 is the day that the contract extension runs out.  We’ll have to wait and see what transpires in this weekend’s contract talks before we know if there will be another strike.

Calling OC! Come & Get Your Democracy Tonight!

OK, now! Are you ready to join me at DFA-OC tonight?

Special Guest: John Perez, Political Director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 324, to discuss current contract negotiations with Albertson’s, Von’s and Ralph’s. Other items: Presentations on peace actions, blogging in CA (by Calitics’ own atdleft!!), resolutions to be voted on at State Convention, media presentation and more. For collection, bring household items or gift cards for Beverly House, a home for 18-21 year old emancipated foster women.

So would you like to learn more about the gorcery workers’ negotiations? Do you want to find out what YOU CAN DO IN ORANGE COUNTY to end the war and create a more peaceful planet? Do you want to ACTUALLY MEET ME TONIGHT??!!

OK, OK. I know I don’t really matter… But YOU DO! So come on over to DFA tonight, and get your fill of democracy… AND ACTION! : )

Albertsons Breaking Laws and Intimidating Workers

(Now cross-posted at MyDD and Daily Kos for your reading pleasure… And oh yes, please sign the UFCW petition to show your support for the grocery workers! – promoted by atdleft)

(cross-posted from Working Californians)

The dirty tricks have begun again.  We really shouldn’t be surprised that the grocery stores would resort to breaking the law, in an attempt to weaken the workers negotiating position.  After all, three years ago Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons entered into an illegal pact to share their profits, in order to outlast the worker strike.  That landed them in court facing anti-trust charges.  And just last year, Ralphs plead guilty to fraud charges and lying to the government.  It was part of their scheme to use fake social security numbers to hire strikebreakers during the last contract dispute.  They paid $70 million in fines and were placed on three years’ probation.

Albertson’s faced a strike vote Sunday and they immediately dug back into their bag of dirty tricks.  They violated the National Labor Relations Act in the following ways:

  • Sending home union activists to prevent them from speaking with fellow workers
  • Keeping records of employee preferences on the strike authorization vote
  • Directly asking workers how they were going to vote

Due to the weakness of the NLRB, it will be years until they will receive their light slaps on the wrist, if ever.  It is another stark reminder of the necessity for the Employee Free Choice Act.

Billy Gonzalez an Albertsons Produce Clerk and UFCW Local 1428 member penned an email today about these outrageous violations of federal law.  He says:

I’m writing to you about this because we have to stand up to Albertsons and any employer that tries to intimidate or bully their employees. Employers must act within the law and treat their employees with respect. I know they can’t bully me, and I’m filing this complaint along with several of my co-workers because I want to stand up for every employee to make sure that they don’t ever have to experience this.

It’s clear that the employers are seeing the momentum in this campaign shift over to our side. After all, why would they risk federal charges if they didn’t feel their billions in profits and the unfair two-tier contract were being threatened by our authorization vote? Bullies like Albertsons don’t fight fair, because they know they have to cheat to win.

By staying united and standing up to the employers, we already have them on the run. We’ll be fighting these violations of federal labor law in court to ensure they realize the penalty of breaking the law in the weeks to come, but one thing is already clear: their desperate actions prove that grocery workers are winning the battle to get respect.

The court case will take a long time.  The workers need your help now.

Help Billy win this fight.

  1. Sign the petition and add your voice to support and demand respect for grocery workers.
  2. Email the corporations.
  3. So. Cal grocery workers will be tabling at Ralphs this week.  Find locations and stop by to show your support.
  4. Find a worker-friendly store.
  5. Find out more at RespectWorkers.com.  There are a number of videos, a new feature called “truth of the day” and lots of great information.

Grocery Workers and the Collapse of the Middle Class

(cross-posted from Working Californians)

Sign the petition: Add your voice to support and demand respect for grocery workers.

Working in a grocery store used to mean a stable middle class living.  That changed in Southern California with the creation of a two-tier wage structure in 2004.  Those hired after the strike make significantly less than those employed prior and have a much harder time qualifying for health care benefits.  It is the difference between a stable middle class existence and the high turnover of low-paying work that forces people to take multiple jobs to make ends meet.

You can see it in this video, created by UFCW.  There are stark contrasts between those who have worked at these chains for decades and those hired after the strike and are now working two jobs.

This trend is not localized.  From the AFL-CIO blog:

Of the 144 million jobs in the United States, nearly one in three of the total pays low wages-and often does not include affordable health insurance, paid sick days or retirement coverage. That eye-opening information, provided in a new report by The Mobility Agenda, finds these $11.11-an-hour-or-less jobs also tend to have inflexible or unpredictable scheduling requirements and provide little opportunity for career advancement.

The Mobility Agenda, a special initiative of Inclusion, a virtual think tank affiliated with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, finds that since 2001, there has been a sharp decline in wages for workers at the bottom third of the wage scale. Worse, reviewing the evidence on economic mobility, the authors of Understanding Low-Wage Work in the United States conclude:

In the U.S. labor market, it is not possible for everyone to be middle class, no matter how hard they work. Moreover, it has been getting harder to do over time.

Now that wages and benefits have dropped, turnover is up- way up.  Only 15-23% of those in entry-level jobs are sticking around beyond a year.  That is costing chains a lot of money on hiring and training costs.  It was one of the biggest reasons why  Stater Bros. came to an agreement with UFCW and eliminated the two-tier system.

Jack Brown, chairman and CEO of the Colton-based chain Stater Bros., said the increase in turnover was so stark at his chain that his company recently agreed to a new deal with the UFCW that gets rid of the two-tier system.

The company had adopted a two-tier plan when it agreed to abide by the 2004 contract reached by the union and the three major chains. This time, Stater Bros. decided to craft a deal separately from the chains.

While turnover continued to be low after the strike among longtime workers, Brown said, turnover for entry-level employees had doubled, from an annual rate of 25 percent to 50 percent.

Brown said the longer waiting period for pay raises and health benefits for those hired after the strike made it difficult to hire top-notch workers who want to make a career in the grocery business.

“We need to make sure we are attracting the best of the young people,” he said.

Experts estimate that it costs about $3,000 for grocers to hire and train new employees.  The turnover was hurting Stater Bros.’ bottom line.  Workers are demoralized by working the same job as other colleagues, but earning way less.  They are not qualifying for health care coverage.  Out of 42,000-44,000 workers in the lower tier, only 3,800 have health care and only 75 have their dependents covered.

These workers are looking for respect and fair wages.  Both tiers want to see equality in their pay.  These CEOs are banking billions in dollars of profits, but their employees are struggling.  They have fallen out of the middle class and are cycling in out of their doors.  It is time for a fair contract, one that enables a middle class existence.

Sign the petition: Add your voice to support and demand respect for grocery workers.

These workers are now under a three week contract negotiation.  They have scheduled a strike vote for workers at Albertsons.  It is the company they have been in negotiations the longest and have made the least progress with.

Buying Groceries Is A Political Act

The 2003-2004 Southern California UFCW grocery worker’s strike and lockout was a low point in the history of the labor movement in America.  Grocery employees picketed the three major chain stores for 140 days, and despite public support, in the end they got almost nothing that they wanted, were forced to take on a burdensome two-tiered wage system (one for new employees and one for old ones), and scarcely impacted the bottom line of these huge conglomerates, who consequently turned the grocery worker job from a stable middle-class profession to the equivalent of flipping burgers.  It was disgraceful and deeply troubling that the lives of tens of thousands of workers in California were turned upside down.

Now there’s a chance to rectify it.  And you can help.

First, a little history.  In October of 2003, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) voted to strike at Von’s, a major Southern California supermarket chain owned by Safeway, Inc.  The other two big chains, Albertson’s (aka Supervalu) and Ralph’s (aka Kroger) locked out their workers within hours.  It was an example of the collusion by the big chains that characterized the whole strike.

The main issue was the health benefits of the workers, paid entirely by the company; Von’s wanted the workers to pay 50% of health costs under a new contract. They also wanted to introduce a two-tier wage system… Beginning in early October, 70,000 members of the UFCW were on strike in the region.

Since the U.S. has no national health care system, health benefits are often one of the most important parts of employee compensation. The average wage of a southern California UFCW worker is less than $12 per hour, and most workers are guaranteed only 24 hours of work per week. Many workers hold the job mainly for the health benefits.

I remember most the expressions of public support during the strike and lockout.  The chain stores were almost completely empty.  Trader Joe’s was a mob scene, walking in there was like walking into some postwar zone.  The shelves were ransacked, people were breaking open boxes faster than the stockboys could take everything out.  Indigenous people were selling crafts in the aisles, an attempted coup broke out in produce, people were spray-painting “Viva La Revolucion” on the organic broccoli. (OK, the rest of that didn’t happen.)

The point was that Southern Californians were by and large not crossing the picket line and respecting the right of the workers to bargain for fair wages.  This is especially salient because the employees were mostly bargaining for future workers, so that they could get better pay and benefits.  I remember dressing my dog up for Halloween as a striking grocery worker (and if the picture was on this computer, you’d be seeing it right now).  People really understood the issue and went out of their way to honor the strike.  Supermarkets lost roughly $2.5 billion in revenue.

And that’s when the chains started to play dirty.

On October 31, they pulled the pickets from Ralphs as a gesture of “good faith” to focus them on Von’s; the employers immediately announced that they would be sharing profits and losses during the strike – thus showing at least that the capitalists have class solidarity. The union went so far as to urge people to shop at Ralphs, where their own members were locked out. Even though the chains are all national, with total sales of $30 billion a year, the unions shyed away from any national strategy, sending a few “informational pickets” to outlets in northern California and elsewhere.

This ended up being a bad strategy because Ralph’s traffic picked up and then they SHARED THE PROFITS with the other two chain stores, keeping all three afloat and able to sustain the revenue loss.  Furthermore, Ralph’s started illegally rehiring union workers under phony Social Security numbers to keep the business going.  The company eventually had to pay a SEVENTY MILLION DOLLAR FINE for “conspiracy, using a false Social Security number, identity fraud, falsifying information sent to the SSA and IRS, and failing to make proper payments to employee welfare benefits plans.”  Criminal charges for the executives are still pending.

The strike wore on and finally was settled in February 2004, as public support waned and the union ran out of money for strike pay.  It was a combination of factors that led to the awful contract they were forced to accept.  They instituted a two-tiered system that offers lower pay and benefits to new workers coming into the system.  And the health care benefits that the old workers retained were trimmed, which led to increased turnover in the business.  This blog post offers a great summation of why this strike just didn’t work as well as it could have.

A generation ago, this strike would have been a complete victory for the employees. They were able to close down their stores for several months. When those stores were regional, the employers would not have been able to sustain those kind of losses.

But the grocery industry is increasingly a national and multinational industry. The companies decided it was worth taking huge losses in one regional market if they were able to break the back of the union.

In fact, it’s paid off handsomely.

The chain stores’ main complaint was that Wal-Mart and other discounters were moving into the region, and they could not compete with stores that offer no benefits.  Three years later, Wal-Mart and other non-union grocery stores are not a factor in the Southern California market at all. 

The employers always point to Wal-Mart and Costco as major reasons they need to cut costs (and pay their grocery workers less), but Wal-Mart and Costco control less than 8% of the Southern California market, even less than they had in 2003 when the employers claimed that this competition was forcing them to reduce wages and benefits for their grocery workers.

Indeed, the three major chains have retained all of the market share they lost during the strike and then some, propelling them to record profits.  Ralph’s, Von’s and Albertson’s and their parent companies made between 2 and 3 billion dollars in profits last year.  Their CEOs took home up to $9 million in compensation.

Meanwhile, under this two-tiered system, nearly half of all grocery workers at these three chains are making less than the people who work right next to them doing the same job every day.  And practically nobody is receiving quality benefits.  Rick Wartzman spelled it out in an article in the LA Times:

The reason: These are folks who joined the Pleasanton, Calif.-based supermarket giant after the 4 1/2 -month strike and lockout that ended in February 2004. And under the contract the United Food and Commercial Workers union signed with Safeway, Kroger Co.’s Ralphs chain and Albertsons (now owned by Supervalu Inc.), new employees can’t get any health benefits for 12 to 18 months. Their families aren’t eligible to be covered for 30 months.

Going without insurance for so long “is completely stressful,” says Suzanne Demers, who went to work at Safeway’s Vons market in Redondo Beach in July 2004 and earns $10.50 an hour training others, filling in at the Starbucks station and tackling a range of additional tasks. “You just hope and pray that you don’t get sick.” […]

Right now, figures from the trust fund overseeing the health plan show that a mere fraction of lower-tier workers have been in the job long enough to qualify for coverage: just 3,312 out of 12,520 at Vons; 3,771 out of 11,474 at Albertsons; and 2,044 out of 8,438 at Ralphs.

And how long will most of these workers last before they, too, head for the exits?

This two-tiered system is churning employees of what used to be a potential career out of the business; it’s become a low-wage service job.  And it’s getting worse with every upper-tier employee that leaves and every lower-tier employee that replaces them.

The last contract for UFCW employees in SoCal expired a week ago; they granted a two-week extension and negotiations continue.  Stater Bros. and Gelson’s, two regional chains in the area, have agreed to remove the two-tiered structure.  But the big stores (the ones that can afford it) have not budged yet.  In the meantime, there’s a lot you can do to help.

The UFCW has a website at RespectWorkers.com.  There’s a petition over there that I ask all of you to sign.

By signing this petition, you are indicating your support for compensating grocery workers fairly, ensuring that they enjoy a share of the supermarkets’ billions in profits, and ending the current two-tiered wage structure by endorsing equal treatment for equal work.

Full Petition Text:

I believe Southern California’s grocery workers deserve respect, and I therefore stand with them in support of the following contract goals:

–Fair benefits and pensions for all employees

–Equal treatment for equal work

–Elimination of the two tier contract

Another way you can support the employees is by patronizing those stores which have stepped up to their responsibilities.  There is a worker-friendly store finder on their site which you can use to find the stores in Southern California which have shown respect for their employees.  If you’re not in the area, I would suggest that Safeway/Von’s, Albertson’s/Supervalu, or Kroger/Ralph’s are NOT stores that you need to reward with your business at this time, until this gets ironed out.  This can only work as a national strategy, in my view, because a national corporation can sustain a regional strike, as they did the last time.

I would also suggest that any Democratic candidate looking to make some headway in California would do well to highlight this issue RIGHT NOW and make sure that these large grocery chains are being held to account.

Nobody wants another strike.  But there is an opportunity to rectify the deep injustice to working people that was perpetrated in 2004, and to ensure basic fairness in the workplace.  I hope all of you can help with this project.