'There Are Nights When I Don't Go to Sleep'

Times Staff Writer

As labor's point man in the California supermarket strike, Rick Icaza has been arrested on charges of civil disobedience and shouldered mounting criticism that the union's strategy isn't working.

At 70, a multimillionaire from decades of investing in Southern California real estate, he could've retired years ago in comfort.

But the union, Icaza says, isn't his job; it's his life. He's proud of the wages and benefits he has negotiated in the 23 years since he became president of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the largest of the seven locals involved in the 4-month-old dispute.

The local's 30,000 members -- including the 14,500 affected by the strike and lockout -- are among the best-compensated in the UFCW. They have repeatedly reelected him, often with Icaza running unopposed.

And as the UFCW's Southern California contract came up for renewal last summer, the son of Mexican immigrants wanted to win one more lucrative deal for his members before his term ends in 2006.

"My goal was to leave the union in good financial position so it could take on the challenges of the future," Icaza said in an interview last week. "I also wanted to make sure we had the best contract in the nation before I retired."

Instead, the dispute over the contract dissolved into the longest grocery strike in UFCW history as the stores took a hard line that caught Icaza and other union leaders off guard. (The two sides negotiated through the weekend, meeting for 16 hours Saturday and Sunday. Talks were scheduled to resume today, said John Arnold, a spokesman for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is overseeing the negotiations. "The fact they've been talking as long as they have is a positive," he said.)

Icaza said he and other UFCW officials still hoped to reach a "fair and reasonable" deal to end their members' growing hardship.

"I know my members are suffering," Icaza said. "It's the most tragic thing that I've ever experienced. There are nights when I don't go to sleep."

Icaza also is aware of his place in the history books. "I just don't want to have that legacy of being the one that destroyed the very thing it's taken us 60 years to achieve," he said.

The UFCW struck Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions chains Oct. 11. The next day Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc. -- which are bargaining jointly with Safeway -- locked out their union workers. About 59,000 people were idled at 852 stores in Southern and Central California. An additional 11,000 employees at other chains would be covered under the new pact.

That Icaza takes the workers' plight personally is no surprise, said Jack Brown, chief executive of Stater Bros., a Colton-based chain that isn't involved in the dispute but has agreed to abide by whatever contract the UFCW inks with the other three chains.

"I have always known him to be a very caring type of union president," said Brown, who has dealt with Icaza for more than 20 years. "He's a very sincere guy and he's probably the most experienced union president in the West."

Icaza is tough but fair, given neither to table-pounding nor back-slapping, Brown said. "He's built his reputation by being able to build consensus."

With the strike so long and bitter, Icaza faces a formidable challenge getting a contract he can sell to union members and defend as a victory.

In interviews outside several stores in the San Gabriel Valley recently, some workers grumbled about Icaza's handling of the dispute, though most didn't want to be identified. Others said he was doing the best he could against a tough foe.

"His performance right now I would say is mediocre," said Cheuk Lee, a Ralphs produce clerk and a 28-year veteran of the grocery business. For one thing, "he already knew the health issue would be the main focus" before the talks began, Lee said, so Icaza should have kept "us on the job while he worked out the details."

In Icaza's view, the UFCW is doing nothing less than protecting some of the last middle-class jobs in Southern California. If the supermarkets succeed in their goal of slashing workers' healthcare benefits and using a two-tier level of compensation for current and newly hired workers, "the unions will have no basis for collecting even dues, if that's the kind of contract we're going to create," Icaza said. "I don't want any part of that."

He also defended himself against charges that he and other UFCW officials should have been better prepared for the supermarkets' demands, especially because the chains had become nationwide behemoths that could withstand the financial damage of a strike in Southern California.

"I would have pushed ... to make sure that it wasn't just a regional strike, that it was a nationwide effort" that might have put more pressure on the stores, Icaza said. "That's Monday-morning quarterbacking. But I argue we've won the strike in Southern California," he said, because the stores have suffered sales losses approaching $2 billion.

A diminutive man with stooped shoulders, a ruddy complexion and bright smile, Icaza favors tailored suits, bow ties, cufflinks and antique wristwatches. Still, he's quick to don an open-collared denim shirt when he joins a picket line or other worker gathering, said Brown of Stater Bros.

"Rick never forgot his roots," Brown said.

Ricardo F. Icaza was born in Los Angeles during the Depression to parents who had emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s. The son of a journalist father and a mother who worked in the garment district, he bagged groceries and held other jobs at Ralphs to work his way through high school and college. That meant he also joined the Retail Clerks Union, which later would be absorbed by the UFCW.

He earned a bachelor's degree in business at UCLA in 1956 and joined the union local as a researcher and has been there ever since.

Icaza and his wife, Adele, married in 1960. He has two daughters and four grandchildren. Just before his marriage, Icaza said, he and Adele took $5,000 of her savings -- "I didn't have any money," he said -- to buy an apartment building in Echo Park.

It was the start of their long string of real estate investments. Today, he and his wife own about 10 residential and commercial properties, most through their trust, according to public records.

"It was just my way of really knowing that if I lost my job, I would be able to fall back on something," Icaza said.

He jogs every day, often using the time to ruminate on union business or other responsibilities. Icaza is president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a trustee of the California State University system and a vice president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

"He'll say, 'Miguel, when I was running today I got this idea or that idea,' " said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary and treasurer of the labor federation. "It clears his mind to run early in the morning. He's always thinking."

Associates said Icaza tends to be reserved, almost private. But he has been passionately vocal about holding the union's line during the contract bargaining, according to sources familiar with the talks. The supermarkets declined to comment about Icaza, citing the negotiations.

He hasn't been shy about using public events and enlisting political heavyweights to advance the union's cause. At a recent news conference, he was flanked by Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and the Rev. Jessie Jackson, among others.

One of the best-paid labor leaders in the country, Icaza earned $273,404 in salary as local president in 2002, the latest period for which the figure was available. He has defended the pay as justified in light of the contracts he has negotiated.

Icaza said his personal wealth does not dilute his role as union leader and his attacks on the supermarkets with claims that they caused hardship for his members.

He points to wealthy politicians such as President Kennedy and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who represented people of all incomes. "Having money doesn't preclude you from doing the type of job you do," he said.

"Coming from my background has given me the opportunity to understand the plight of the workers," Icaza added. "My whole life has been dedicated to that."

But was Icaza prepared this time for the supermarkets' resolve? He said that he knew the bargaining would be contentious but that he had always worked out solutions with the stores -- and expected he could again.

He was wrong, by at least four months. "I felt that by having that relationship ... we had passed the era of a need for strikes," Icaza said. "I thought those days were over."

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