Southern California Unions Sue Ralphs, Albertsons Over Grocery Store Employee Lockout
Seven Southern California unions filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday against Albertson's and Kroger's Ralphs grocery store chains, alleging that the companies locked out their employees without giving them proper notice after union members began a strike against Safeway, Bloomberg/Arizona Republic reports (Bloomberg News/Arizona Republic, 10/15). The lawsuit seeks 60 days' worth of back wages and health care and pension payments, which United Food and Commercial Workers officials estimate would cost several hundred million dollars, the Los Angeles Times reports (Cleeland, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). About 70,000 UFCW members at more than 850 grocery stores in Southern California on Saturday went on strike after contract negotiations between the workers and store officials from Albertsons, Kroger's Ralphs and Pavilions and Safeway's Vons failed, largely because of disputes over health benefits. Because of the sluggish economy, rising health care costs and increased competition from nonunion competitors, the grocery store chains have asked employees to pay $5 a week for individual health care coverage and $10 to $15 a week for family coverage. In addition, the grocery stores have proposed that employees pay as much as $75 for prescription drug coverage and that their dental and vision care benefits be terminated. The union opposes changes to their health plans and wants a 50-cent-an-hour raise the first year of the contract and 45-cent raises in each of the following two years. Union workers decided initially to strike against Vons because it had taken "the toughest stance in negotiations" and has the highest concentration of stores in Southern California. Albertsons and Ralphs locked out employees Sunday morning (California Healthline, 10/14).
UFCW attorney Michael Four said the lockout constitutes a mass layoff because employees have been told they cannot work for "an indefinite period of time," and he added that the grocery stores' action violates a state law implemented this year that requires employers to give 60 days' notice before any mass layoff. However, Albertsons spokesperson Lilia Rodriguez said the locked out workers are still employed, so the lawsuit is "without merit." Scott Witlin, a labor attorney who represents employers, said the lawsuit is likely to fail because "[t]he right to strike and the right to lock out is protected by federal labor law," which he said supercedes the state law (Los Angeles Times, 10/15).
The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday examined the ongoing strike of unionized mechanics working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles County that has brought bus service to a halt in the area after negotiations broke down primarily over health benefits (Fox/Streeter, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). The mechanics, who are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, had been working without a contract for more than a year. Talks resumed last week after a more than two-month delay in negotiations. However, negotiations broke down Sunday evening over MTA's contribution to the union's health plan and the plan's management. The MTA contributes about $1.4 million each month to the mechanics' health care fund, and the union is responsible for administering members' insurance policies. However, union leaders say health care costs have risen to about $1.9 million a month over the last year because of health insurance premium increases. The fund is now insolvent. Union leaders have asked the MTA to increase its contributions to the fund, but MTA officials say workers should pay more to support it (California Healthline, 10/14). Both sides have said they are willing to make concessions on who should pay for rising health insurance costs, but no negotiations or progress have been reported (Streeter/Oldham, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). The MTA, which has contributed $533 a month per mechanic to the fund since 1994, has offered to increase its contribution to $634 per mechanic and to allocate $4 million to the fund to make it solvent, according to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (D), who heads the MTA board (Fox/Streeter, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). In addition, the MTA has suggested that it temporarily take over the health fund (California Healthline, 10/14). The union is requesting that the MTA increase its monthly contribution to the fund to $705 per mechanic, with annual increases of 15% (Fox/Streeter, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). Union negotiators have offered to increase members' share of health insurance costs from $6 to $77 (Streeter/Oldham, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). Union treasurer Jim Lindsay said the mechanics would be willing to share control of the fund equally with MTA trustees but added that "we're not willing to give management control because they've already demonstrated in negotiations that they want to gut our medical benefits" (Fox/Streeter, Los Angeles Times, 10/15).
Summaries of editorials and an opinion piece addressing the UFCW and MTA mechanic strikes are provided below.
Los Angeles Times: Los Angeles County supervisors, city council members and Mayor James Hahn (D), who receive political support from unions, should "aggressively us[e]" their positions to persuade union officials in the transit strike to "find needed savings" in the union health care fund, a Times editorial states. The Times notes that a recent independent audit of the health insurance fund found mismanagement because the fund uses a broker who "has no incentive to seek lower [premiums]" (Los Angeles Times, 10/15).
Riverside Press-Enterprise: The dispute between union members and three grocery store chains highlights the fact that the "surging price of health care challenges virtually every group," according to a Press-Enterprise editorial. Increasing health care costs "will continue to ripple through our personal and business lives" and will not "be solved at any supermarket bargaining table," the Press-Enterprise concludes (Riverside Press-Enterprise, 10/13).
- Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times: The two strikes currently underway in California over health care benefits indicate that employees "may soon have to decide between paying the mortgage and taking the kids to the doctor," Lopez, a Times columnist, writes in an opinion piece. "The party's over" for "anybody with a blue-collar job that pays a livable wage and good health benefits," Lopez writes (Lopez, Los Angeles Times, 10/15).
- The Long Beach Press-Telegram on Monday looked at the impact of health care costs on strikes (Pondel, Long Beach Press-Telegram, 10/13).
- Reuters/Washington Times on Wednesday examined Southern California's "crippling strikes" (Reuters/Washington Times, 10/15).
The following broadcast programs reported on the strikes:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from Richard Bank, director of the Center for Collective Bargaining at the AFL-CIO; Judith Feder, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine; and Dan Danner, senior vice president for federal public policy with the National Federation of Independent Businesses (Reynolds, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight": The segment includes comments from Greg Denier of the UFCW (Tucker, "Lou Dobbs Tonight," CNN, 10/14). The full transcript of the segment is available online.
- KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?": The segment includes comments from Damon Azali, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union, and Yaroslavsky (Olney, "Which Way, L.A.?," KCRW, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KPCC's "KPCC News": The segment reports on the grocery workers' strike and includes comments from Vons spokesperson Sandra Calderon (Lopez, "KPCC News," KPCC, 10/13). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KPCC's "KPCC News": The segment reports on the MTA workers' strike (Urevich, "KPCC News," KPCC, 10/13). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KPCC's "Talk of the City": The segment includes comments from University of California-Berkeley Labor Center researcher Ken Jacobs, KPCC reporter Robin Urevich, and Trader Joe's head of marketing Pat Saint John (Felde, "Talk of the City," KPCC, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KQED's "California Report": The segment includes comments from Calderon and Yaroslavsky (Urevich, "California Report," KQED, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment reports on the grocery workers' strike and includes comments from Banks, Calderon and Merrill Lynch supermarket analyst Mark Husson (Horsley, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment reports on the MTA workers' strike (Kahn, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Day to Day": NPR's Carrie Kahn discusses the MTA workers' strike (Chadwick, "Day to Day," NPR, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- MPR's "Marketplace": The segment includes comments from Harvard University economist David Cutler; Helen Darling, president of the Washington Business Group on Health; Paul Fronstin, an economist at the Employee Benefits Research Institute; and Edward Howard, executive vice president of the Alliance for Health Reform (Palmer, "Marketplace," MPR, 10/14). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.