Grocery Workers' Leader Paid Like a Corporate Boss

In the same way that many people eventually come to resemble their dogs, adversaries in a long-running battle often assume elements of each other's personalities.

That might explain how the leaders of the supermarket workers' union have come to acquire one of the less savory characteristics of their corporate opponents in the current contract dispute -- to wit, their penchant for being scandalously overpaid.

This issue arises via the federal disclosure forms filed in Washington by locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which currently have 70,000 members striking or locked out at three major Southland grocery chains. Some of the union's top regional officials, whose strategic blunders have contributed to this costly, 15-week stalemate, are among the best-paid labor leaders in the state -- nay, in the country.

Take Rick Icaza, the head of Los Angeles-based Local 770, which has 30,000 members. Icaza earned $273,404 in 2002, the latest period for which the figure is available. That was nearly a 10% raise over the prior year.

Icaza, 69, out-earned even John Sweeney, the national president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization. Sweeney earned a salary of $247,500 that year. Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO official who has just been assigned to craft a nationwide campaign to try to save the grocery workers, should probably ask Icaza to pick up the tab if they dine out together. Icaza out-earned Trumka in 2002 by a comfortable margin of $56,000.

The phenomenon of overripe compensation at the UFCW starts with International President Douglas Dority, whose $329,792 made him the best-paid president among the AFL-CIO's 64 member unions in 2002. That's the case even though the UFCW is only the fifth-biggest union in the AFL-CIO and its members, whose dues provide the funds for its lavish payroll, are generally part-time hourly workers in a low-paying industry.

The UFCW bureaucracy is so well-treated that Icaza, the top-earning local president among the seven Southland leaders involved in the supermarket dispute, collected a better salary in 2002 than did the international presidents of the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, Communications Workers of America and Teamsters unions.

When I queried UFCW officials last week about whether their leadership salaries weren't a bit out of line, they retorted by asking if I was aware how much money Safeway Inc. paid to its chairman, Steven A. Burd, who is their most truculent opponent.

Funny, but I would have thought that union leaders' modeling their lifestyles after that of corporate bosses went out with Johnny Friendly's demise at the end of "On the Waterfront." In any case, nobody in his or her right mind would consider Burd to be a paragon of sage and thrifty management, given that his bungling of several ill-considered

acquisitions in recent years has cost his company well more than $1 billion.

Still, it's only fair to point out that Burd pocketed $1.26 million in salary and bonus in 2002 (a 41% cut from the previous year). It's also fair to observe that earlier this month Safeway announced millions of dollars in stock bonuses to Burd's 11 top lieutenants, and that Burd raked in millions more from his sale of Safeway shares.

Icaza and Greg Conger, the UFCW's Orange County local president (who says he is earning about $200,000), say they and their leadership staffs have taken salary reductions of about 20% since the start of the labor dispute, and are planning to move to 50% cuts shortly. "It's even conceivable that we'll take ourselves off the payroll eventually and work on a volunteer basis," Icaza says.

Meanwhile, he maintains that his pay is justified by the success the union has had in the past. "We've had probably the most effective agreements over the years," he told me. "That's probably why we've had these salaries." (Of the six other UFCW locals involved in the dispute, none has a president earning less than $95,000.)

Yet other regional labor leaders with notable recent victories under their belts aren't compensated nearly as well. International Longshore and Warehouse Union President James Spinosa, who fought off the port industry's attempt to break his 10,500-member union during a lockout in 2002 -- while preserving free health insurance and obtaining improved pension benefits -- earned a salary of $93,000 that year. (Like many other labor leaders, the ILWU's patriarch, the late Harry

Bridges, believed that the union brass should never earn more than the average member, a principle that apparently failed to penetrate the UFCW.)

Another example is Mike Garcia, head of L.A.-based Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union. He led the landmark Justice for Janitors campaign in 2000, which featured a strike, vigils and public rallies. In the end, the SEIU won huge gains for thousands of commercial building workers downtown. Garcia's pay: $68,438.

Notably, the janitors' campaign bore several features missing from the supermarket dispute.

"They planned that strike for two years," recalls Ruth Milkman, a labor expert at UCLA. "They educated the membership. They were thoughtful about public relations. They were in the street with a clear message about underpaid workers. They understood the industry they were in; they knew who were the real decision makers and they targeted those people."

Of course, as tough a fight as that was, it's conceivable that not even the janitors had to confront opponents as obdurate as the supermarkets. "You've got a really dug-in, intransigent group of employers seeking a fundamental shift in wage and benefit patterns," observes Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at Berkeley. "This is trench warfare."

The UFCW and its predecessor unions genuinely deserve credit for helping to transform employment in the food-retailing industry into a path to middle-class security. But the downside of taking a salary that places you at the pinnacle of the wage-earner pyramid in the United States is that people always want to know what you've done for them lately.

It is plain that over the last 15 weeks, and dating back to the start of negotiations with the grocery chains in August, the UFCW leadership has been woefully outmaneuvered by the managements of Safeway (which own Vons and Pavilions), Albertsons Inc. and Ralphs parent Kroger Co. As a result, rather than maintaining or improving their economic status, which was the goal of earlier contract negotiations, the workers are struggling to avoid being ejected from the middle class altogether.

The labor leaders acknowledge that they never expected the dispute to last this long, so they are now dependent on solidarity handouts from unions in other industries to keep their members afloat.

Indeed, the UFCW leadership miscalculated from the start. They counted on the collegial relations that they've had in the past with the supermarkets to endure, although the companies were scarcely shy about placing labor costs in their gun sights for these negotiations. The regional locals also failed to design a national strategy in concert with other UFCW locals or the AFL-CIO until now, when it might be too late, even though it has long been clear that the chains were capable of exploiting their earnings in the rest of the country to cover sales losses in Southern California.

If one regards a six-figure salary as an incentive to stay absolutely on top of your game, the conclusion is inescapable that the UFCW leaders haven't come close to earning their pay.

And that couldn't be happening at a more dangerous time. If the chains succeed in their goal of establishing lower pay and benefit scales for new hires, they will ensure that supermarket jobs will never attract career-minded workers again, and the likelihood is that the union itself will wither away.

Icaza, to his credit, understands the risk. "I've spent my whole career dedicating myself to ensuring the members have great benefits," he says. "Now, I find that the companies want to take those benefits away. It's devastating."

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at

latimes.com/hiltzik.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°