Ralphs Veterans Losing Jobs to Lower-Paid Clerks, Union Says
On April 18, the manager of the Ralphs Grocery store at Wilshire and Barrington in West Los Angeles presented an agonizing choice to Penny Bost, a veteran cashier: She could either accept a demotion to a job that would pay less than half her salary or she would be laid off.
“They said they would hate to lose me,” recalled Bost, who was making $11.80 an hour at the time. “They said they’d be glad to keep me on as a general merchandise clerk at $5 an hour, and that when they used me for cashiering it would be $7 an hour. The manager told me to call back before 8 a.m.”
The next morning, Bost told her boss that she could not rely on a $5-an-hour position with the hope of making more, and she was out of a job.
Bost is one of hundreds of Ralphs employees in Southern California who have been faced with the same dilemma. In the last 16 months, Ralphs, the region’s largest retail food chain, has laid off or demoted 1,800 workers in violation of its contract, according to Bost’s union, the United Food & Commercial Workers.
The company has replaced veteran cashiers with younger, less experienced employees whose salaries are generally $4 an hour less than the people they replaced, according to workers who were laid off.
“We feel betrayed by the store where we worked so hard,” said Peter Glaser, who was laid off from the same store as Bost a few days later. He said other high-seniority employees had had their hours reduced so the company could make greater use of lower-paid employees to save money.
An assistant manager at the store confirmed that both Bost and Glaser had recently been laid off but said he could make no further comment.
“We’re really angry with the company for the way they’re treating these people,” said Rick Icaza, president of Hollywood-based Local 770 of the Food and Commercial Workers. “It is a union-busting tactic. A company that makes $43.9 million in profit and says they’re going to continue massive layoffs and reductions in hours, we can’t accept that.”
The dispute has broad ramifications, according to Laurence Steinsapir, a lawyer for the union. “The whole industry is watching Ralphs. If Ralphs gets away with this, the more honorable employers probably will attempt to do the same thing because the competition in the Los Angeles market is the stiffest in the country,” Steinsapir said.
Ralphs contends that it has laid off only 173 workers, but company officials acknowledge that many others have been shifted to lower-paying positions. The company further states that its conduct is perfectly legal and that it has to cut labor costs to stay competitive.
A company spokesman said labor represented 70% of Ralphs’ costs and added that the company was operating on only a 1% profit margin. The spokesman said that if Ralphs lowered its labor costs it could lower costs to the consumer.
But Food & Commercial Workers officials noted that Ralphs made a $43.9-million profit in 1984 and indicated that they are prepared to fight vigorously in order to change the company’s policies:
The union has lodged hundreds of grievances seeking to restore the affected employees to their previous positions.
It has filed a federal court action in Los Angeles seeking to stop the layoffs and demotions until an arbitration hearing is held in August on its contention that the company has violated the contract. Last week, it lost the first round when a federal district judge declined to issue a temporary restraining order.
Today the union is scheduled to stage simultaneous demonstrations at the Ralphs headquarters in Compton and at the Cincinnati corporate offices of Federated Department Stores, Ralphs’ parent firm.
“We’re not ruling out any activity, including economic activity to get redress,” Icaza said, adding that the union might strike or launch a boycott of Ralphs if necessary.
The dispute centers on several passages in the union’s contract with Ralphs. Thomas Kerrigan, a Ralphs attorney, said the contract permits the company under certain circumstances to utilize “general merchandise clerks,” paid $5.37 an hour to $7.73 an hour, to perform the work of “food clerks,” (including cashiers) “who earn up to $11.80 an hour.” He said that Ralphs could utilize general merchandise clerks instead of food clerks even when there were food clerks on layoff.
“The whole trend in this industry--and all the major supermarkets are parties to this contract--is employers using their economic leverage to obtain concessions,” Kerrigan said. “This is really just a continuation of that trend.”
Steinsapir, one of the union’s lawyers, took sharp exception to Kerrigan’s statement and Ralphs’ actions. “They’re violating the language of the agreement, the spirit of the agreement and the practices of the last 20 years since the inception of the general merchandise clerk.”
However, he acknowledged that the current dispute is the latest chapter in a long-running battle between the union and local supermarket chains on the broad issue of how the markets utilize part-time employees.
Last summer, members of nine locals of the Food and Commercial Workers threatened to strike over the issue of minimum weekly hours. The union wanted a guarantee of 25 hours of paid work per week, but the Food Employers Council, representing the major supermarkets, would guarantee only 16.
Union officials stressed at the time that as recently as 1979, nearly 70% of its 70,000 members in Southern California were working full time. But by last summer, Icaza said, only 30% to 40% of the clerks at all the supermarkets were working full time.
The dispute probably will not be resolved for months. Kerrigan said that if the arbitration proceeds on schedule in August, there might be a decision by the end of the year. In the interim, laid-off Ralphs employees are trying to find new jobs, frequently without success, they say.
“I’ve gone around to other markets looking for a job and it’s impossible because other markets know what Ralphs is doing,” said Gloria McNeil, who lost her cashier job at $11.80 an hour at a Hollywood-area Ralphs on April 26. “They (the other markets) say there’s no way we can hire a journeyman at journeyman’s wages when we can promote from within.”
Bost said she also has been unable to find a new job. “If my hunting’s not successful, I will have to take Ralphs’ offer to work at a lower rate, even though I’ll lose my seniority.” Bost, who has two daughters, said she is afraid of losing her house because she and her husband are separated and she might be unable to afford the payments.
She said she was still stunned by the company’s action. “It was an absolute surprise. There was no warning whatsoever. That’s the thing I’m most angry about. For me, it was my life, my livelihood and my children’s livelihood.”