NLRB to Hear Union Charges of Phil's Using Unfair Practices

Times Staff Writer

The National Labor Relations Board has scheduled an administrative hearing into charges that unfair labor practices have been used against striking employees by Phil's Food Markets Inc., a family-owned chain that operates grocery stores in La Crescenta, Sylmar and Lake View Terrace.

The charges stem from incidents at Phil's Food Queen markets in La Crescenta and Sylmar during a 6-month-old strike by grocery store clerks who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Striking employees have accused Phil's management of threatening employees with the loss of their jobs if they struck, of threatening to close a store if employees supported the union and of threatening employees on a picket line with physical violence.

In one of the charges, Mike Sirianni, son of the owner and a partner in the chain, is accused of driving his car in a reckless and dangerous manner through a line of picketing employees at the Sylmar store in December.

Hearing March 12

The NLRB investigated the strikers' charges and found them serious enough to merit a hearing, which was scheduled for March 12 before an administrative law judge in the Wilshire Boulevard Federal Building.

The food chain has filed its own complaint with the labor board, accusing the union of failing to bargain in good faith. That complaint is being investigated, said Carol Cloutier, a former Teamsters attorney who is representing Phil's.

Cloutier said the company has a civil suit pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court that alleges that striking employees committed several acts of vandalism.

Cloutier asserted that damage to the stores included a large bullet hole in the window of the Sylmar store, severed telephone wires at the La Crescenta store and obscene graffiti painted on Phil's buildings and trucks.

She also alleged that strikers had placed nails in the tires of cars of customers and store employees hired to replace the picketers.

Preliminary Injunction

In late December, the company obtained a preliminary injunction from a state court in Los Angeles that limits picketing, Cloutier said. The injunction limits the number of strikers who can picket directly in front of the stores to two and prevents the picketers from blocking entrances and exits to the stores and adjacent parking lots, she said.

The grocery store clerks, some of whom were Phil's employees for 20 years, walked off their jobs in August after the chain declined to accept the conditions of a contract negotiated between the union and the Food Employers Council Inc., which represents 11 major supermarket chains.

Phil's, an independent market, is not a member of the council. The chain was founded by owner Phil Sirianni 34 years ago.

Most of the 75 employees who struck have been replaced by non-union workers, and business at the three stores is back to about 90% of normal, the stores' owners said.

Pension, Medical Plans

At the heart of the dispute are the pension and medical plans outlined in the Food Employers Council contract, which Phil's management says it cannot afford. In past years, Phil's representatives said, the smaller independent markets were able to negotiate separate contracts patterned after council contracts. But the August contract limits such independent deals.

Phil's representatives said the smaller market chains need to negotiate their own contracts with their employees in order to survive. Striking employees and union representatives, however, allege that Phil's is intentionally engaging in union-busting tactics.

"After 30-odd years, Phil's decided to go non-union on us, and most of us had time invested in union pensions," said Shellee Spencer, who had been a checker at the La Crescenta store for four years.

Spencer said that before terms of the contract were announced, Phil's was training non-union employees at night when the stores were closed and regular employees had gone home.

Under terms of the Food Employers Council contract, health and pension benefits are extended to all employees, regardless of age, who work a guaranteed 16 hours or more. Phil's is offering health and pension benefits only to employees who are 21 or older and who work at least 25 hours a week.

Striking employees say the chain's offer is substandard and contains no guarantee that an employee's hours would not be cut back simply to eliminate the cost of paying health and pension benefits.

Mike Sirianni, spokesman for the chain, dismissed the charges filed with the labor board as harassment, saying there was no truth to any of the union's allegations.

"It's just the typical stuff that the union does all the time," Sirianni said. "It's nothing new.

'Beautiful Relationship' Over

"We certainly are mad that the union has destroyed the beautiful relationship we had with our employees."

Picketers at the La Crescenta store said Phil's attitude toward the union contract caught them by surprise.

Ileene McCulley, a checker who worked at Phil's for 19 years, said she was forced to retire early to keep her medical and pension benefits. Before the strike, she said, she never had any problem with the store's management.

"He has been a very good boss," McCulley said of Phil Sirianni. "I gave him a full day's work and did whatever he asked until he decided to go outside the union."

Now McCulley said she spends about five hours a day, five to six days a week, on the picket line in support of the striking employees.

Andrea Zinder, director of collective bargaining and research for union Local 770, said Phil's has refused to bargain or negotiate with the union.

"The strike will end when Phil's comes around and bargains in good faith and starts making some compromises," Zinder said.

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