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Clerks Lose in Effort to Halt Layoffs by Ralphs

Times Staff Writer

Lawyers representing 7,000 Ralphs grocery clerks were unsuccessful Tuesday in an effort to obtain a federal court order banning the supermarket chain from continuing an alleged policy of mass layoffs and reduced hours for higher-paid employees.

Four locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union representing clerks at 126 Ralphs stores from Orange County to Santa Barbara had asked U.S. District Judge William Keller of Los Angeles to issue a temporary ban on the company’s practices pending arbitration of the labor dispute.

Keller, according to union lawyers, refused to issue the ban, saying that he did not have authority to do so. The attorneys said he invited them to file an immediate appeal of his decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to obtain a definitive verdict.

Michael Feinberg, an attorney for the grocery clerks, charged that Ralphs had begun a policy of layoffs and reduced work hours for senior employees several months ago in violation of basic contract agreements dating back to 1964.

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“They are assigning work normally done by food clerks to merchandise clerks, who are paid about $4 less per hour,” Feinberg said. “Hundreds of grievances have been filed with the union.”

Feinberg said the most recent union contract signed last year with Ralphs and 10 other grocery chains forbids such cost-cutting practices. He accused Ralphs of instituting the policy to gain a “competitive edge” over other grocery chains that have not engaged in similar layoffs.

“We will definitely appeal on an emergency basis,” Feinberg said. “Both sides have agreed to arbitration of this issue in the coming months, but meanwhile, we are worried that if Ralphs gets away with this, other supermarkets might feel they have to do the same thing to stay competitive.”

A Ralphs spokesman said he had no comment on Tuesday’s decision by Keller, which was announced to the lawyers in an unusual afternoon telephone conference call. District judges in the 9th Circuit have been urged to use conference calls when possible as a way of speeding their work, but Feinberg said they rarely announce their final decisions over the phone rather than in court.

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While Ralphs would not comment Tuesday, lawyers for the supermarket said earlier that their contract with the clerks permits them to reassign work and reduce hours.

At a public hearing before his conference call, Keller said that the clerks would not suffer permanent damage if they are successful in arbitration and will be able to collect back pay at that time.


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