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U.S. Probing Staffing at Ralphs

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles is looking into allegations that Ralphs supermarket managers have illegally hired locked-out union workers under false names and Social Security numbers, according to federal law enforcement sources.

“Agents are on the streets talking to people,” said one source, adding that “dozens” of workers were interviewed over the weekend and that store managers might be contacted this week. “The investigators are finding some very interesting information.” Subpoenas for personnel records, he said, were “in the cards.”

Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neil said that “it is against our policy for our managers to hire anyone who they know is using a falsified Social Security number or pseudonym.”

The federal probe follows a pair of lawsuits filed last month by the United Food and Commercial Workers union that accuse the supermarket chain of illegally rehiring workers and putting them on the payroll under phony names.

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It isn’t illegal for a striker to cross a picket line, but under a lockout, an employer can’t selectively hire back workers. Doing so would violate federal labor laws, according to Byron Kohn, a regional attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, which also is investigating the charges.

A finding against Ralphs could expose the chain to liability for back pay for all of its approximately 20,000 locked-out workers or make it more likely for them to receive state unemployment benefits. Either outcome could increase pressure on Ralphs to settle a protracted contract dispute with the UFCW in Southern and Central California.

The UFCW launched a strike against Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11. The next day, Albertsons Inc. and Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co., complied with a pre-strike agreement and locked out their union workers. The three chains bargain jointly on the UFCW contract, which covers about 70,000 workers at 852 stores.

Vons and Pavilions store managers have encouraged their workers to quit the union and return to work. According to UFCW officials, about 9% of those workers have returned to their jobs.

At the NLRB, Kohn said it was likely that his office would send a recommendation to the general counsel’s office, which then would decide how to proceed.

“There are not a lot of laws dealing with lockouts and what type of conduct could convert a lawful lockout into an unlawful one,” he said. “This is an extremely novel situation.”

Few if any strikes involving such issues have lasted long enough for the legal questions to be resolved, Kohn added.

Rumors that store managers were hiring experienced Ralphs employees have circulated almost from the beginning of the dispute. Union representatives have compiled a list of more than 50 workers who they claim are working despite the lockout.

Two union members from Orange County -- operating undercover for the union -- told The Times last month that they were guided by their Ralphs store managers to apply to other Ralphs stores, in one case in San Diego County. They said the managers encouraged them to use the Social Security numbers of their children to avoid detection.


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