AFL-CIO to Intervene, Ratchet Up Market Strike

Times Staff Writer

The AFL-CIO is taking control of national strategy for the California supermarket strike and lockout, assigning two veterans of labor wars to turn around a battle in which employers seem to have gained the upper hand.

The campaign will be led by Richard Trumka, who played a pivotal role in resolving the West Coast port lockout, and Ron Judd, who orchestrated AFL-CIO protests at the turbulent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

The plan is to pressure the supermarket companies by hounding executives and directors with phone calls and visits, staging demonstrations across the country -- including a pray-in outside the Northern California home of the chief executive of Safeway Inc. -- and persuading major grocery-company shareholders, such as pension funds, to take stands in the union’s favor.


“We have our work cut out for us,” Trumka, the national labor federation’s secretary-treasurer, said in an interview Monday, “but I predict that three months from now, there will be a whole different attitude out there.”

United Food and Commercial Workers union officials said they welcomed the AFL-CIO’s heightened participation on the tactical side, characterizing the federation’s plan as an expansion of a strategy the UFCW had already set in motion.

In fact, Trumka, Judd and other top federation officials had agitated for months to become more involved in strike planning but were rebuffed until recently by national UFCW leaders, according to a national labor strategist familiar with the situation.

The AFL-CIO’s intercession comes after two failed attempts by the UFCW to get contract talks back on track. With the Central and Southern California labor dispute in its fourth month and no resolution in sight, tensions among leaders of the seven UFCW locals involved have become increasingly apparent.

Observers weren’t convinced that the AFL-CIO’s aggressive tactics would bring about a labor-friendly conclusion.

“They’ve tried a lot of things and there’s no progress, so this seems like a completely appropriate thing to try,” said Ruth Milkman, director of the UC Institute of Labor and Employment. “I just don’t know if it will work.”

The UFCW launched a regional strike against Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11. The next day, Albertsons Inc. and Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs, which are part of the same collective bargaining agreement, locked out their union workers.

The dispute focuses on the supermarkets’ demand that workers’ health benefits be reduced and that the union agree to a lower wage and benefit scale for new hires. Whatever contract is signed is likely to affect contract negotiations across the country -- a chief reason for the AFL-CIO’s interest.

The supermarket chains would not comment on the AFL-CIO plan.

Burt P. Flickinger, director of Strategic Resource Group in New York and a consultant to supermarket suppliers, said that with its picketing members frustrated and running out of money, the grocery workers’ union didn’t have much time to turn things around. Some local unions have mortgaged their headquarters buildings to maintain strike benefits for members; for many pickets, health benefits expired in January.

But Flickinger said the supermarkets, which have lost an estimated $1 billion in sales, also were under increasing strain. “It really is crunch time,” he said. “The supermarkets are holding the line because their stock prices are holding steady. As we go into 2004, that may change.”

In mid-December, the UFCW offered what union officials described as substantial concessions on health-care benefits. The companies dismissed the proposal as inadequate. In early January, national and local UFCW officials met secretly in San Francisco with mid-level managers from the supermarket chains. Union participants said four days of meetings brought them no closer to a resolution.

The union negotiators “came away from that meeting scared to death,” said the national labor strategist familiar with the UFCW who asked not to be identified. “Now they know -- this is war.”

The California strike is the longest grocery strike in the UFCW’s history.

On Friday, top AFL-CIO officials and representatives of 40 national labor unions discussed strategy and plans for fundraising during a conference call. More than $600,000 was pledged, Trumka said.

In addition, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union will announce at a news conference today that it plans to raise more than $1 million for health benefits for the picketing grocery workers; the longshoremen’s union will ask its members to pay an extra $25 a month in dues for six months.

As a federation of autonomous national unions, the AFL-CIO has no authority over the actions of its affiliates. Until recently, the UFCW limited the federation’s involvement to making public statements and raising money for the strike fund.

Similarly, the seven union locals involved in the strike are autonomous, and their own national union can only suggest strategy to them.

A major challenge for the AFL-CIO in California will be to hold the seven local UFCW groups together long enough to allow the federation’s strategy to take effect, another national labor strategist said.

“In strikes this long, people are hurting, the locals are hurting, the stress level is raised. That’s human nature,” said this strategist, who asked not to be named. “But remember, the same thing can happen in corporate boardrooms.”

Trumka, a former president of the United Mine Workers of America, is widely viewed as a tenacious negotiator. After the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, Judd worked with Trumka on the 2002 West Coast port lockout.

Rick Icaza, president of Local 770 in Los Angeles, said the AFL-CIO intervention came at a crucial time.

“To win this, we need an expansion nationwide, and we haven’t really done that yet,” he said. “I don’t think you can ask any more of the members or the consumers, as far as their support goes. The only reason they [the supermarkets] are hanging in there is they’ve got national resources.”