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More Than a Food Fight

no waiting on aisle one, the only checkout lane open on a recent afternoon at the Albertsons on La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road. Few shoppers crossed the picket lines that went up here when the store locked out union workers on October 12, several days after union members rejected a contract offer from the nation’s Big Three supermarket chains. Just three customers pushed their carts down open corridors, past the smattering of apples and green bananas that sat forlornly in the produce display. The meat case was nearly empty, and in live seafood the three catfish swimming in nervous circles probably remained safe for another day.

Outside, a half-dozen employees from this store and from the huge Ralphs across the street planted the sticks of their picket signs on the ground and chatted glumly. Although Southern Californians are for the most part backing the union workers by staying away, the supermarkets have not given up their demands for wage and benefit concessions, and the strike and lockout have entered their third month.

Picket captain Geraldine Coleman said she and her colleagues plan to put up a Christmas tree outside the store to bring a little cheer to their daylong vigils. But the tree, when it comes, can’t help but remind picketers that there will be no regular work and no paychecks through the holiday season. “Things are not so good,” remarked Coleman. “They’ve broken off talks maybe three or four times. But I hear they’re going to try again on Thursday.”

Coleman was too optimistic by a day. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service scheduled a new round of talks Friday between negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers, representing 70,000 striking and locked-out supermarket employees, and officials from Albertsons, Safeway (owner of Vons and Pavilions) and Kroger (owner of Ralphs). The last round of talks broke off a week earlier with no progress reported.

The grocery giants are pressing for a two-tier pay plan, in which new hires would be paid on a lower scale than current workers. The chains also insist on capping their contributions to employee health plans, a move that would translate into higher employee co-pays and deductibles. Union leaders have charged that the offer amounts to an unprecedented take-away of hard-won health benefits, and that concessions today would mean wider health-care cutbacks in the future for employees in every industry in the nation.

Labor leaders from around the nation gathered in Century City for a summit on the crisis and trumpeted what they termed a favorable settlement with Kroger in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio after a strike of several weeks. That accord underscored UFCW’s strategy of painting Kroger as the least blameworthy of the three chains in the Southern California strike. Kroger’s Ralphs stores, in fact, are no longer being picketed here, although the lockout at Ralphs and Albertsons that began the day after Vons workers began their strike remains in effect.

At least one official said the settlement in the Appalachian states showed Safeway Inc. and its hard-line president and CEO Steve Burd to be the real stumbling block. Safeway stores were not involved in the West Virginia–Kentucky–Ohio strike and settlement.

“It’s significant that when Safeway is not involved, the employees can get back to work with their health benefits protected,” UFCW spokeswoman Jill Cashen said. At the Century City summit, union officials announced sympathy pickets would go up at Safeway stores around the country.

In another sense, though, the settlement spoils an opportunity for UFCW to take its strike nationwide. Contracts between the union and major supermarket chains expire this spring in Baltimore, later in the year in Northern California and the next year in regions around the country.

 

The strike marks a time of drastic change in an industry that has been periodically reinvented, often by innovations in Southern California that placed customer convenience and lower prices ahead of service. The first wave of change began just before World War I, when Ralphs invented the local grocery chain by opening branches of its downtown Los Angeles store to follow customers to the suburbs. Homegrown competitors Vons and Sam Seelig were close behind.

Each of the three chains claimed to be the first in the country to adopt “cash and carry,” a practice that turned grocery stores into places where customers for the first time left with bags of food, too heavy for a walk home but fine for carrying in the car. In the 1920s, a Los Angeles Ralphs staked its claim to being the world’s first “supermarket” by offering a full range of meat, dairy products, produce and baked goods under one roof.

The era of the nationwide supermarket chain was born in 1926 when the Sam Seelig company changed its name to Safeway and merged with Skaggs stores in a deal orchestrated by Wall Street innovator Charles Merrill, who later left his firm, Merrill Lynch, to direct the grocery business. Discount pricing and shopping carts that doubled as strollers for youngsters originated at California-based Lucky, which was absorbed in the 1990s by Albertsons.

In recent decades, Southern California has been a follower, rather than a leader, in grocery-industry innovation as hostile takeovers and consolidations placed the stores under managers outside the region. Discount behemoth Wal-Mart, based in Arkansas, got into the grocery business in 1980s and overtook Cincinnati-based Kroger as the nation’s biggest grocer last

year by squeezing suppliers for the lowest prices, paying

employees bottom-level wages and offering only rudimentary health benefits.

Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons have cited the Wal-Mart factor as one of their prime reasons for trying to cut labor costs in their stores. Local governments, meanwhile, have tried to keep well-‰22 paid union jobs in town, and Wal-Mart at bay, with legislation that either prohibits Wal-Mart and other so-called big-box stores from selling groceries or mandates union-level wages. The most closely watched test case locally is in Inglewood, where the City Council adopted a big-box restriction last year, only to reverse itself under legal pressure from Wal-Mart.

A citizens group that backs Wal-Mart’s plan for a development adjacent to Hollywood Park gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot next year that would virtually strip city officials from ever again limiting Wal-Mart’s ability to build and sell groceries in Inglewood. UFCW officials vowed to block the measure in court, and a spokesman for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy said a lawsuit could be filed as early as Thursday.

In Los Angeles, a City Council committee was expected this week to finally call on City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to draft an ordinance that would require big-box retailers to pay grocery workers a prevailing wage. The proposal, more than a year in the making, follows the release of a report by Rodino and Associates that asserts that big-box retailers don’t enhance commerce but instead just transfer sales away from stores that pay their workers more.

The UFCW has for years led the fight nationwide against the expansion of Wal-Mart. But changes in the grocery industry that have nothing to do with the Arkansas-based retailer pose continuing challenges to the union and, especially, the cashiers and checkout clerks who earn just under $18 an hour.

NCR, the company made famous by the cash register, changed the supermarket checkout forever in the 1970s with the optical scanner and the universal product code, or UPC. Grocery chains looking to cut costs began to complain that cashiers no longer had the skilled and demanding jobs they once had (although UFCW officials say checkers now suffer high rates of repetitive stress syndrome from moving products across scanners).

The next wave of grocery automation was unveiled at a Los Angeles trade show in 1998, when NCR presented its self-checkout equipment, which the company says eliminates the need for cashiers altogether. The Food Marketing Institute reports that 30 percent of U.S. grocery chains now use NCR-type self-checkout systems, which are also made by Optimal Robotics, PSC Inc. and IBM. Additional changes are coming. Retailers are experimenting with radio-frequency identification — tiny radio wave–emitting tags that transmit product and price information to cashierless checkout stations. In the grocery stores of the not-too-distant future, shoppers may just toss their goods into a cart and walk out the door as charges are radioed to their credit accounts.

That does not bode well for supermarket workers like Geraldine Coleman, who with her husband supports four children in their Baldwin Hills home. But Coleman pointed out that her fight against a two-tier wage structure and reduced health coverage is not just for her and her colleagues. Competitive cost cutting across the retail industry affects the buying power of thousands of wage earners. Supermarket chains and other retailers may be flirting with, in effect, laying off their customers.

“What they’re trying to do could affect generation after generation,” Coleman said. “We’re fighting for our kids and our grandkids, and for the future.”


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