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Monday, May 16, 2022

Grocers Employ Host Of Tactics to Prevent Unionization of Staff

Grocers Employ Host Of Tactics to Prevent Unionization of Staff

By DAVID GREENBERG

Staff Reporter

As 60,000 unionized workers at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons make preparations for a possible strike within a matter of days, their non-union counterparts at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market and Bristol Farms face no such deadline.

Despite periodic attempts by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to organize those employees, most of the smaller chains have managed to keep the unions out.

The reasons why depend on who is being asked.

Union officials cite a variety of factors from worker apathy to alleged retaliation against employees who help organize stores where they work.

The chains willing to talk about it deny using hardball tactics and some maintain that they treat workers better than employers in the adversarial climate that often pervades union shops.

“The union hasn’t had the support that it needs and over time, it just dies down,” said Sonja Tuitele, director of investor relations for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets Inc., where union organizers in L.A. recently failed to attract enough interest to launch an all-out unionizing drive. “We have people who have come from a union environment to work for us.”

As a non-union shop, Wild Oats has more flexibility to set up its own business structure, Tuitele said.

The grocer also stands to benefit if there’s no breakthrough in stalled contract negotiations between grocery store workers and the three major chains. The four-year contract expires on Oct. 6, and both sides have been girding for a work stoppage that could begin several days later at Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs.

“I believe that a strike is inevitable based on what the proposals have been and because the employers have not taken them off the table,” said Rick Icaza, president of Local 770 of the UFCW, which covers most of Los Angeles County.

Benefiting from benefits

Wild Oats, which has four stores in L.A. County, offers fringe benefits as one way keep its employees happy.

They include paying workers up to $12 per hour for as much as 52 hours per year to perform volunteer work in the community as well as giving food discounts of 10 percent for the first year of employment, 20 percent up to the fifth year and 30 percent thereafter. Wild Oats also pays cash bonuses based on performance rather than seniority-based pay rates established by unions.

Wild Oats workers were recently “hand-billed” by the UFCW to see if there was any interest in joining the union. When the movement failed to gain any momentum, organizers gave up at least for now.

“A lot of times, (workers) have a good manager that treats them well and pays them good wages,” admitted Willie Rodriguez, organizing director for Local 770. “That means the workers are content.”

More typical of the dynamic is the UFCW’s decade-long, as-yet unsuccessful drive to organize about 2,500 workers at Santa Fe Springs-based Super Center Concepts Inc., which operate 15 Superior Super Warehouse stores in Southern California.

Union officials accuse the company’s owner, Mimi Song, and her management staff of firing, demoting and transferring workers who are even seen talking to organizers. Rodriguez said the fear factor dissuades other workers some of whom are illegal immigrants from getting involved in a campaign. Between fear and attrition, repeated efforts to galvanize a central organizing group have been stymied, he said.

“You build a rapport with these people and a month later, they are gone,” said Rodriguez. “That means you have to start all over again.”

Doug Hart, a partner at L.A.-based law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, which represents Superior, said the chain doesn’t intimidate its employees, who have “a very good working atmosphere” and receive good pay and benefits.

“If that wasn’t true, then after all these years of intensive organizing efforts, you would think the union would be successful.” He called the union allegations “outright lies.”

Retaliation against organizers

In general, hardball tactics can be effective at food stores, which operate on low profit margins and employ workers who live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to be out of work for very long.

“Fear is probably the biggest reason why more workers aren’t unionized,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in labor issues. “If it’s a non-union shop, it’s a low-pay dead-end job.”

She added that while unions file grievances with the National Labor Relations Board, the process could take months before the matter is resolved.

Icaza said fear was a factor in the UFCW’s failed campaign to organize 30 workers at a Trader Joe’s store in South Pasadena last year.

Most of the employees signed cards calling for the election, but when it took place, the union failed to win a majority vote. “They were so intimidated by the employer that they reversed their position,” he said. “They supported the employer’s position because they were afraid of losing their jobs.”

Representatives of Monrovia-based Trader Joe’s Co. did not return calls.

The UFCW isn’t beneath using some muscle of its own.

Super A Markets, with 268 employees in L.A. County, Compton-based Gelson’s Markets (700 employees), Hows (250) and Grupo Gigante SA (400) are currently under the UFCW wing.

When Gigante, the Mexico City-based retail giant, made plans to expand into Southern California, union organizers began negotiations with management a year before the first store opened in Pico Rivera.

“The pressure we put on Gigante was that we were going to stop their growth,” said Rodriguez. “We definitely played hardball. We knew we had to educate the work force in order to mobilize.”

When management resisted, the union picketed the store, passed out informational brochures and asked city officials in Covina the site of the planned second outlet to pressure Gigante to relent. Within a few months, both sides signed a union contract.

“It was not a great deal for us,” said Justo Frias, president of Gigante USA’s California division. “But it was a fair deal in which we were able to create teamwork inside of the store and it opened up many doors in many cities for possible expansion.”

For now, organizing has taken a back seat to contentious negotiations to replace the existing contract that expired Oct. 5.

Albertsons Inc., Ralphs, a unit of Kroger Co., and Vons, a unit of Safeway Inc., are now the chains under fire by the union.

In negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, the three companies are seeking significant health, pension and workplace rule concessions.

Gelson’s, which is owned by Arden Group Inc., Super A and Stater Bros. Markets, all union shops, have signed “me-too” agreements promising to abide by any contract agreed to by the three larger chains.

Those companies will not be targets if a strike materializes, said Kathy Finn, director of collective bargaining research for Local 770. In fact, the union will encourage consumers to shop at unionized stores that are not at the table. “They are not the one’s proposing the take-aways,” Finn said. “They are saying they will sign any deal that’s on the table.”

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