To keep its warehouses stocked and its delivery trucks running without the Teamsters union, Ralphs Grocery Co. has turned to a convicted felon with a history of legal woes.
Clifford L. Nuckols, a veteran of the strikebreaking business, has hired hundreds of people and brought them from around the country to the Los Angeles area, where the supermarket strike and lockout are in their tenth week.
Booked two to a room at hotels in Burbank and Compton, the replacement workers are packed every day into rented vans and driven past pickets from the United Food and Commercial Workers union and knots of jeering Teamsters at Ralphs warehouses in Glendale and Compton.
“They’re like locusts,” said Frank Halstead, a Teamster who normally works in the Compton warehouse. “They fly in, destroy the good jobs and then fly out to do it again somewhere else. This is the equivalent of hired guns in the olden days.”
Helping employers through labor disputes is what Nuckols does best, according to the Web site of his company, Personnel Support Systems Inc. And with few unions mounting big, long strikes these days, he doesn’t get to do it very often anymore.
Longtime labor activists familiar with Nuckols’ security forces from strikes at coal mines and auto plants more than a decade ago remember him as a formidable opponent, though they said they hadn’t heard about him in years.
But even today, Nuckols stands out in an industry known for tough guys, said John Logan, a researcher with the London School of Economics who has studied the business of busting unions.
Neither Nuckols nor Personnel Support’s registered owner, Rita Davis, who has shared an address with him in Kentucky, responded to more than a dozen calls left with the company’s answering service during the last two months.
Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neil said in October that the grocery chain was employing Personnel Support. He since has declined to comment. Both Personnel Support and Ralphs’ parent company, Kroger Co., are based in Cincinnati.
There are no official estimates on the number of companies that hire themselves out to end labor disputes. Employers that use the services are reluctant to talk about it, and the firms themselves make a point of staying in the background.
Nuckols, 57, got his start in the late 1970s, during an era of massive strikes and hard-line employer responses, when the union-fighting industry was young and unpolished.
On the Personnel Support Web site, he describes himself as an industry pioneer with more than 700 labor disputes under his belt. He touts a proven ability to keep businesses running normally through the pain and charged emotions of a strike, using security details selected for their “attitudes and demonstrated abilities.”
Testimonials on the site from former clients, including managers of a brick factory, a cement plant and an auto parts plant, attest to his skill at keeping business running smoothly.
Nuckols also has run into trouble over the years, according to legal records and interviews.
In the early 1990s, former employees and the U.S. Department of Labor sued him and his companies, seeking unpaid wages and workers’ compensation benefits, records show. In 1993, he was convicted in federal court in Kentucky for bank fraud and sentenced to eight months in prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Records show that the case involved passing bad checks.
The supermarket strike and lockout in Southern and Central California started Oct. 11, when the UFCW struck Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores. Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc., which bargain jointly with Safeway, locked out their workers the next day.
Safeway also has hired an outside labor contractor to bring in replacement workers, said spokeswoman Sandra Calderon. Albertsons Inc. declined to comment on its hiring practices.
The need for replacement drivers and warehouse workers arose Nov. 24, when members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters agreed to honor UFCW picket lines at the chains’ distribution centers. That sidelined 8,000 Teamsters, including commercial truck drivers, forklift operators and shipping and receiving clerks.
Building on a network of veteran employees with referrals and responses to newspaper ads, Personnel Support pulled together at least several hundred workers from as far as New Jersey and Louisiana and brought them to California by plane or bus, replacement workers interviewed in recent weeks said.
The Personnel Support recruits are staying at the Burbank Hilton, near a Ralphs warehouse in Glendale, and the Crystal Park Hotel and Casino, close to the chain’s warehouse in Compton.
Several Personnel Support employees, who spoke briefly to reporters at the hotels before being pulled away by supervisors, said they hadn’t held steady jobs in a while and had jumped at relatively lucrative temporary gigs.
One man at the Crystal Park Casino said he was promised about $800 to $900 a week, in addition to the free lodging and $25 a day for meals.
Managers and coordinators, who supervise the crews, can earn much more, but their jobs aren’t easy. A coordinator at the Crystal Park Casino, who gave his name as Andrew, said the Personnel Support workforce was volatile and that fights broke out regularly.
This month police were called to the Burbank Hilton to investigate a rape allegation by one of the few female replacement workers, said Det. Brian Llewellyn of the Burbank Police Department.
After meeting with prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, the woman decided not to press charges against a male colleague, the detective said.
Andrew said he signed up with Personnel Support in St. Louis on his brother’s advice but decided to call it quits after a few weeks in Compton. “My wife wants me to come home,” he said in late October as he waited for a ride to the airport. “She’s worried.”
Nearby, about a dozen workers gathered at the hotel entrance, grumbling that they hadn’t yet been paid for three weeks’ work. “We haven’t gotten a check,” said a man from Detroit. He declined to give his name, but others called him T-Bone.
Nuckols has been accused before of failing to fulfill his obligations.
Christopher J. Carney of Cleveland, a former prosecutor for the Labor Department, said it took three years and legal wrangling to get Nuckols to pay $25,000 in back wages and interest in 1990.
Attorney James M. Brown of Mississippi said he was still trying to collect $1.3 million awarded in 1993 to a former Nuckols security guard who was injured during a strike at Monsanto Co. in West Virginia. Brown said he was stymied at every turn by Nuckols, who had filed for bankruptcy protection for three of his companies.
Brown said he tried to pursue Nuckols as an individual but couldn’t find a bank account, property or other holdings in his name.
“I spent a fortune on private investigators,” he said. “He has his assets well hidden.”
A 1997 labor contract proposal by Nuckols, obtained by Brown through the court proceeding, billed his executives’ time at $100 an hour, Brown said. Strike-force coordinators cost $60 an hour and replacement drivers $28 an hour.
Labor researchers said that though strikebreaking has dwindled, the anti-union consulting business has grown in size and sophistication over the last two decades, becoming a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by law firms and public relations agencies.
The emphasis now is on persuading workers to reject unions rather than blunting the effects of a strike.
There is a good reason for the shift: Big strikes are rarely staged anymore, in part because employers have shown a greater willingness to hire permanent replacement workers. These days, unions are focusing more resources on organizing new members.
“The number of large strikes these days is tiny,” said the London School of Economics’ Logan. “There were only 19 in 2002 involving more than 1,000 workers. In the late ‘70s, there were over 200 a year.... The strikebreaking business isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Joe Uehlein, director of strategic campaigns for the AFL-CIO, directed the national federation’s last major study of strikebreaking firms in 1990. The report estimated that the industry generated at least $1 billion a year in revenues, but Uehlein said detailed information was hard to find.
“They like to keep a low profile, change names a lot, work in the background. They don’t disclose anything unless they absolutely have to. And their clients like to keep it that way,” Uehlein said. “I’m surprised a grocery chain would have a direct link to them.”