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Ralphs’ Layoffs Net Company a Bagful of Upset Ex-Employees

Times Staff Writer

The dispute between the Ralphs Grocery Co. chain and members of Local 324 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU) over wages and hours has been particularly difficult for the Hobart family of southern Orange County.

“We’re in constant conflict on the subject of Ralphs,” said Doris Hobart, who asked that the young family’s real name and hometown not be used.

In late April, the journeyman cashier was called into the manager’s office of the Ralphs store where she worked and was informed that, after nearly five years, she was being laid off from her $11.80-an-hour job. There was no problem with her performance, the manager told her. In fact, if she liked, she could be rehired as a general merchandise clerk at $5.67 an hour and try again to climb to her previous classification and salary level.

“I said forget it,” Doris recalled, joining at least two dozen other employees of Ralphs in Orange County who are contesting the cost-cutting measure instituted throughout the supermarket chain, which is the region’s largest. With unemployment compensation and a supplementary payment from the union, she now takes home about one-half of what she earned working approximately 25 hours a week.

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At another Ralphs store, Don Hobart is in management, and he says that the new policy is “costing us less,” since “I only have three journeyman checkers at my store.” He admits that he is caught in a bit of a squeeze, personally and professionally, trying to meet mortgage payments of more than $1,000 a month without his wife’s former income and working an average of more than 50 hours a week--much of it at a cash register--to keep his store running efficiently.

“I need the money,” he said, “plus, they need the help at the store.”

“I never see him anymore,” Doris said. She also disputes her husband’s claim that the stores are being operated at previous levels of efficiency.

Management, Don said, is “really on edge,” with the chain “watching everything about the union.”

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According to Eugene Brown, a Ralphs spokesman, the 1984 contract signed with Local 324 permits the company to assign workers in lower classifications, such as general merchandise clerk, to do work now being done by higher-paid workers. “We are concerned with keeping labor costs as low as we can, consistent with the contract.”

“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,” said Thomas Kerrigan, a Ralphs attorney. “This is really just a continuation of that trend.”

Union and company spokesmen offer widely varying accounts of how many workers are affected. Ralphs says that two dozen members of Local 324 have been laid off, but the company has not disclosed how many others have accepted pay cuts. The union, which represents Ralphs employees throughout Orange County and in Long Beach, says “hundreds” of grievances have been filed on the matter.

The dispute is now in arbitration, and hearings are scheduled for Aug. 19 and 20, Brown said. He added, “We will abide by the arbitrator.”

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Seniority Prevails

In laying off workers at the 28 Orange County stores, Brown said, “One of the things we cannot do is pick and choose” because, according to the contract, seniority is the main criterion. “Our complaint is not with our employees,” he said.

The week after Karen Wilson received a gold badge for 100% efficiency at the Lake Forest Ralphs in El Toro, she was informed of her impending layoff. Wilson, 32, had previously received several letters of commendation from the chain, and had been designated Cashier of the Month and Cashier of the Year for the southern Orange County district in the preceding 4 1/2 years.

Like Doris Hobart, she declined a reduction of status and salary.

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“I’m not saying I’m too proud to take a lower-paying job,” Wilson said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

The $11.80 an hour “sounds like a lot, I know,” she said. “But what people don’t realize is that it’s part time,” enabling her to care for her two children during the day and work in the late afternoon and evenings.

‘Good Rapport’

“I had a good rapport with the customers and they seemed to like me. That’s what made it so nice to work there,” said Wilson, who worked for Sears for seven years and, before that, was an assistant manager with the Edwards theater chain.

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Now working at a Hughes market, at her old pay level and status, she noted that she did not collect a single week of unemployment between jobs. But she is still very angry at her old employer.

“If Ralphs wins this one,” she said, “the other markets will say, ‘If they can get away with it, we can.’ I loved the company when I was working for them. It was family-oriented. They looked out for you, they protected you if you worked hard for them. I have no respect for these people--none. It’s unnecessary. All it is is greed.”

Sally Gouveia worked her way through Cal State Fullerton thanks to Ralphs, graduating last week with a major in management. She was still taking her last course, in labor relations, when she was given the same offer as Hobart and Wilson. Like them, she turned it down.

Worked Last Day

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But unlike some of her colleagues, she said, she completed her final shift.

“I went in every single day until the last day,” she said. “I was very loyal to them, no matter what they did to me. I couldn’t call in sick.”

Gouveia spent two years bagging groceries while working her way up to journeyman cashier at stores in Lake Forest and San Juan Capistrano, a job she held for five more years. Gouveia, 27, was laid off by Ralphs once before, for six months in 1984, and had to supplement her unemployment compensation with work as a cocktail waitress. At times, she said, working 35 to 40 hours a week for Ralphs while hearing rumors of layoffs was “very stressful, trying to get through school. I couldn’t study while I was worrying if I was going to lose my job every week.”

Morale at her store is “at rock bottom,” she said, in part because the younger, less-experienced workers “don’t care as much.”

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Gouveia also disputes cost-cutting claims by the company.

Experience Cited

“I could catch someone changing price tags on meat or liquor,” she said. “New kids can’t do that.” Nor does she believe that the company will pass on whatever savings there are to the consumers.

As a management major, Gouveia said that what Ralphs did was “uncalled for. I could understand it if the company was losing money, or if they wanted to build up equity.”

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Ralphs’ net profits for 1984 were $43.9 million on sales of $1.7 billion. A company spokesman said labor accounts for 70% of the company’s costs.

Theresa Perez, another journeyman cashier laid off by Ralphs and now working at Hughes, claims that “conditions at Ralphs are really bad right now.” Her former employer now has “people working the register who don’t know the difference between a butternut squash and an Italian zucchini,” she said. It took her less than a week to find a new job at the same pay, she said, but she is also bitter about the experience of losing her job after five years at the same store.

“I think the way they treated their people is rude,” she said. “I’m so emotional about the whole thing I don’t know how to put into words the way I feel right now.”

‘Never Called in Sick’

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Lisa Cheverier has mixed feelings about the 4 1/2 years she spent working at Ralphs. She received several courtesy awards and was voted Cashier of the Month while seven months pregnant, and “I never called in sick one day while I was pregnant.”

Although she said “I love my job,” she turned down the offer of a cut in wages and status after being informed of her impending layoff, one month after returning from maternity leave.

“They were very nice about telling me,” she said. “But you can’t help taking it personally. It’s hard to believe they could do something like that. I’ve lost interest in the company now.”

Although those laid off voiced resentment about management, there is also an undercurrent of hostility toward Local 324 in their comments. Several thought that the union had been caught flat-footed by Ralphs’ interpretation of the contract section dealing with reassignment and then was slow to respond.

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In addition to a rally at Ralphs’ headquarters in Compton on Monday, the union has held several other demonstrations. Members plan to pass out leaflets at stores in Orange County this weekend. The union also has filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles in an effort to stop the layoffs and demotions, and has filed hundreds of grievances.

The 1984 contract, which runs until 1987, has a no-strike provision.


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