In warehouse battle, a union goal is the focus
A chilly, high desert dawn was breaking as the workers trickled onto the sprawling grounds of Rite Aid Corp.'s distribution warehouse, a behemoth box at the edge of the Mojave.
Awaiting them outside was a makeshift table set with hot coffee and doughnuts, courtesy of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. Employees donning yellow union T-shirts briefly savored a hard-won triumph as they continue a bitter, three-year-plus campaign.
“I’m glad to be back. I need the job,” said Virgilia Mondragon, one of dozens returning to work after the union alleged they were fired illegally from the Lancaster facility.
Rite Aid’s decision last month to reinstate as many as 46 employees dismissed after an acrimonious union organizing drive is the latest chapter in a divisive saga that has made the Lancaster warehouse a national symbol of organized labor’s priority: passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would ease the way for workers to join unions.
According to labor activists, Rite Aid’s anti-union onslaught has included intimidation, misinformation and illegal terminations, along with bad-faith bargaining.
Key parts of the Employee Free Choice Act would greatly enhance penalties against employers engaged in unlawful practices, while mandating federal mediation in initial contract talks.
Rite Aid denies any wrongdoing. From management’s perspective, the warehouse war in L.A.'s parched suburban outpost epitomizes a misguided and intransigent labor movement pushing impossible demands in the midst of a recession. The drugstore giant boasts that almost one-third of its national workforce of more than 100,000 is unionized -- evidence, Rite Aid says, of its readiness to deal with union shops.
“If the union really wanted an agreement, we would have one by now,” said Cheryl Slavinsky, chief spokeswoman for Rite Aid. “But it seems at every turn, the union tries to come up with allegations against Rite Aid to generate public sympathy.”
The Camp Hill, Pa., company, with 4,800 stores and annual sales topping $26 billion, is struggling in a tough retail environment, reporting a loss of $98 million for its latest quarter that ended May 30. Its stock, which traded near $7 two years ago, has fallen sharply, closing Wednesday at $1.31.
The Rite Aid Southwest Customer Support Center, as the Lancaster site is known, is the daily destination of vast quantities of merchandise, much of it from China, entering by truck from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Inside the 1-million-square-foot complex, about 700 workers unload, sort and pack products for shipment to hundreds of Rite Aid stores, mostly in Southern California.
Angela Warner said she began working there for $10.80 an hour almost a decade ago. “When we started, it was a great place to work,” said Warner, 49.
The conditions, said Warner, a union supporter, soon deteriorated: Managers trimmed breaks, demanded more hours for less pay and began enforcing difficult production quotas. Still, an organizing drive by the Teamsters failed in 2002.
“The union turned me off,” said Carlos Rubio, a Rite Aid worker since 2000 who opposed the Teamsters thrust. His hostility to unions softened, Rubio said, after he injured his back shifting a sack of cat food and got little sympathy from management.
In March 2006, several workers contacted the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, igniting a new union drive.
Pay isn’t the top issue in a plant where experienced workers can earn as much as $17 an hour, a substantial salary in the Antelope Valley, which has been hard hit by the burst housing bubble. Instead, union advocates say they must endure punishing production goals, insufficient breaks, mandatory overtime and disparate temperatures -- extreme heat in the summer and freezing winters. Strict rules govern the time allotted for such tasks as moving or packing boxes, even walking from one end of the plant to another.
Management says workers in Lancaster are treated respectfully and in accordance with industry standards. The company points to the facility’s 368 high-speed fans and coolers, controlled by workers, along with a heating system. “They have switches to turn them on and off,” Rite Aid’s Slavinsky said.
According to the union, Rite Aid threatened, intimidated and fired dozens of workers during an anti-union blitz that began in 2006. Responding to a union complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the company agreed in May 2007 to reinstate two prominent union supporters, give them back pay and post a notice vowing not to violate federal laws protecting union organizing. Rite Aid didn’t admit any wrongdoing.
“I wish that Rite Aid were the exception, but it’s really the rule with what’s happening all over the U.S. when workers try to organize,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University who wrote a recent study documenting employer threats and retaliation against union sympathizers.
Under the Employee Free Choice Act, Rite Aid and other employers, if found to be in violation of federal law, could face substantially higher penalties -- as much as $20,000 per violation, plus triple back wages for employees found to have been dismissed illegally.
In its most incendiary provision, the legislation would also allow employees to form bargaining units through “card checks,” submitting pro-union signatures from a majority of workers without an election.
Organizers at Rite Aid say such a process would have greatly expedited union representation. Most businesses fiercely oppose card checks.
Under current law, companies facing union drives have the right to insist on a secret ballot election, as Rite Aid did. Labor activists say such in-house ballots are rife with management coercion. Companies say the balloting is sacrosanct.
“We think it’s fair that our associates vote in a secret ballot, the same way that we all vote for our elected officials,” Slavinsky of Rite Aid said.
The warehouse union won the March 2008 vote 283 to 261, after rallies at Rite Aid stores throughout California. The union hailed the victory as a David-versus-Goliath tale.
“We showed that if we stand together, if we speak up, we can make changes for ourselves, our families and the people who come after us,” declared Ignacio Meza, one of the two workers fired, allegedly for union advocacy, and later reinstated.
But, more than a year after the vote, Meza and his colleagues have no contract. Big issues, including benefits, work rules and job security, remain unsettled.
The proposed Employee Free Choice Act contains specific safeguards meant to eliminate incentives to stall negotiations, so-called surface bargaining. Under the proposed legislation, either party in initial contract talks could seek federal mediation within 90 days. If no accord is reached, the matter would be referred to binding arbitration.
Both sides in the Rite Aid dispute agreed last month to federal mediation, which is expected to start this month. The flutter of progress is inspiring some hope.
“I see a different atmosphere,” Warner said. “All this has done is made us stronger.”