Giving a boost to striking supermarket clerks, the Teamsters union Monday ordered its drivers and warehouse workers to honor picket lines at grocery distribution centers in Southern California, disrupting food deliveries during one of the busiest shopping weeks of the year.
More than 8,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters will be sidelined at 10 distribution centers in Southern and Central California for the duration of the strike, said Jim Santangelo, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42.
"We either end this thing together or we die together," Santangelo said.
The three grocery chains in the dispute downplayed the significance of the action, saying they already had stocked up for Thanksgiving and were in the process of hiring temporary drivers and warehouse workers to replace the Teamsters.
"We're in good shape," said Sandra Calderon of Vons, owned by Safeway Inc. "It couldn't have come at a better time for us. Most people have done their holiday shopping already. The days after Thanksgiving are some of the slowest days traditionally. We now have a good two to three days to get back to speed, and we really feel that we'll be there."
But retail industry consultant Burt Flickinger of Strategic Resource Group in New York said the Teamsters' move could force the grocery chains to reconsider their demands.
"This is an absolute crippler for the supermarket chains," he said. "It raises the stakes and ensures that between the three chains, they'll lose over half a billion dollars collectively between October and November from the strike."
The United Food and Commercial Workers union launched the strike against Safeway's Vons and Pavilions stores on Oct. 11. The following day, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc., which bargain jointly with Safeway, locked out their union workers. The union objected to employer proposals to cut health benefits and to create a significantly lower pay and benefit scale for new hires.
About 70,000 UFCW workers at 859 stores in Southern California and parts of Central California are involved.
Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, has courted Teamsters' support for weeks and was enthused Monday.
"This is a real shot in the arm," he said. "I think it's going to force them to rethink their stand on negotiations. The question in my mind is 'Do they want to give up Christmas, and can they afford to?' "
Mediated negotiations that started Saturday ended abruptly Sunday night when the UFCW announced the Teamsters would honor picket lines. Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who is brokering the discussions, has asked both sides not to discuss the talks.
Until Monday, Teamster drivers had been honoring picket lines at the stores, parking nearby and forcing managers or replacement workers to drive the trucks to the loading docks.
The new action means that drivers won't even pick up the trucks at the distribution centers, and Teamster warehouse workers won't load or unload them. In fact, none of the 8,000 Teamsters working at Ralphs, Albertsons or Vons distribution centers are expected to report for work.
Santangelo said the effect would spread to Kroger-owned Food-4-Less and Albertsons-owned Sav-On drugstores, which use the same distribution centers.
Although the UFCW pulled its pickets from Ralphs stores on Oct. 31 to focus pressure on Safeway and Albertsons, Ralphs distribution centers also are being hit with pickets.
The Teamsters had been promising to add its muscle to the strike for weeks but held back in part because of financial concerns. Teamster members are due to receive $200 to $300 a week in strike benefits, a drain on the union treasury and a fraction of what Teamster drivers normally earn.
Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Studies at UCLA, saw the Teamsters' decision as significant and unusual.
"Unions tend to be quite parochial," he said. "They will come out to other people's rallies and send letters of solidarity, but in terms of really taking on another union's fight as their own, that's unusual. I think this is a recognition that this strike is not ending anytime soon and there's a lot at stake. If in fact these three chains are successful at drastically cutting back labor costs, that could have a devastating impact on future contract negotiations."
Indeed, as Santangelo told his members to park their Vons trucks outside the distribution center in El Monte, he reminded them that their own contract will come up for renewal in two years. "If the retail clerks go down now, we'll be next," he said.
But the supermarkets, citing looming competition from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other nonunion stores in the grocery business, said they had no choice but to cut labor costs. The Teamsters' move won't change that, said Terry O'Neil, a spokesman for Ralphs.
"The union's been talking about this since Day One, and now it's happened," he said. "It was our hope that the union would have used its efforts to resolve the dispute."
Meanwhile, the UFCW expanded its picketing outside the strike area, sending striking and locked-out workers to Safeway stores in Northern California, Washington, Baltimore and Denver. The "informational pickets" are part of a union strategy to spread the financial pain from the strike to other regions where the chains have operations.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
On February 12, 2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had stated repeatedly that 70,000 workers were involved in the supermarket labor dispute in Central and Southern California, said that the number of people on strike or locked out was actually 59,000. A union spokeswoman, Barbara Maynard, said that 70,000 UFCW members were, in fact, covered by the labor contract with supermarkets that expired last year. But 11,000 of them worked for Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., Arden Group Inc.'s Gelson's and other regional grocery companies and were still on the job. (See: "UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2004, Business C-11)
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