No guarantee of peaceful UFCW deal in NoCal

The labor peace that's descended on Southern California's contentious supermarket industry may or may not spread to Northern California. After seven months of often difficult negotiations, Southern California's big grocery chains reached a tentative agreement late Tuesday on a four-year contract with the union representing 65,000 employees, avoiding a repeat of the disastrous strike of 2003-04.

Although details weren't released, a labor analyst said the contract appears to reverse some of the concessions the union made in the last walkout. The analyst, Kent Wong of UCLA's tax-funded Center for Labor Research and Education, said Tuesday's tentative settlement could effect contract negotiations later this year in Sacramento and the Bay Area.

Mainstream grocers seem to be holding their own against low-cost rivals like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and have become "less strident" about cutting labor costs than they were during the last contract negotiations, he said.

A report by Willard Bishop consultants said traditional grocers' sales jumped 2.6 percent nationwide last year, thanks to a focus on specialty items like organic foods.

"A chance of a Northern California walkout is somewhat less likely" because of the pattern set in Southern California, said Burt Flickinger III, an independent retail consultant from New York.

But a peaceful settlement isn't guaranteed in Northern California. Ron Lind, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers in San Jose, said the recent shakeout in the industry means there's only one grocery chain serving both Southern and Northern California: Safeway Inc. Three years ago, a number of supermarket chains covered both territories.

And Flickinger said low-cost competitors like Wal-Mart appear to have made greater inroads in Northern California than in Southern California. That could prompt grocers in Sacramento and the Bay Area to take a tougher line on negotiations, he said.

Jacques Loveall, president of the UFCW local in Roseville, said grocery workers are entitled to "substantial gains in their contract." Loveall's local, UFCW 8-Golden State, represents 30,000 workers in the Central Valley.

During the last contract negotiations in Northern California, a strike was avoided and workers agreed to some concessions, although they weren't as steep as in Southern California.

Current Sacramento-area contracts expire in October (for Raley's, Safeway Inc. and Save Mart Supermarkets) and December (for Raley's Bel Air subsidiary). Bay Area contracts expire in December.

Despite the tense nature of the Southern California contract talks, both sides clearly wanted to avoid another strike. The 2003-04 walkout cost the grocers billions in revenue -- as shoppers went elsewhere for food -- and left the workers with a contract they clearly disliked.

"Nobody wanted a strike here," said George Whalin, a retail consultant in San Marcos. "The cost of going through another strike was too high."

The Southern California grocers -- Safeway's Vons, Supervalu Inc.'s Albertsons and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs Grocery -- confirmed a settlement was reached but wouldn't discuss details.

The contract is "mutually beneficial" and will help grocers "remain competitive in the Southern California market," said Adena Tessler, a spokeswoman for the companies.

Employees will vote Sunday on the tentative contract.

The agreement partially erases the two-tier structure that became a sticking point last time. The structure leaves newly hired workers with permanently lower wages and benefits.

Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for the UFCW in Southern California, confirmed that the gap between the two tiers has been narrowed but wouldn't provide details.

Shimpock said the old contract resulted in huge employee turnover, hurting customer service. "It only makes sense that (the grocers) would want to stabilize the work force," he said.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's some more info from Jacques Loveall about negotiations.

This is another good source for information about UFCW 8 - Golden State and the Voice of Action newsletter.

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