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Is L.A. in the market for another grocery strike?

by Naomi Glauberman

March 29, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Striking grocery clerk Lorena Felipe, 22, of Los Angeles, holds a picket sign outside a Ralphs grocery store in Los Angeles, during the 2003-2004 strike. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Striking grocery clerk Lorena Felipe, 22, of Los Angeles, holds a picket sign outside a Ralphs grocery store in Los Angeles, during the 2003-2004 strike. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

As the Jewish community nears the end of Passover on April 9, the second contract extension between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Southern California's major supermarkets -- Supervalu Inc.'s Albertsons, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway Inc.'s Vons -- is set to expire at midnight.

The union wants to renegotiate its contract with the retailers to eliminate a two-tier system set up after the 2003-2004 strike, which pays workers hired after the lockout at a lower rate compared with veteran workers. The agreement covers some 65,000 union employees.

The impact of that contract, signed at the conclusion of an acrimonious 141-day labor dispute, is examined in a study released on March 20 at L.A. City Hall by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Los Angeles' Grocery Industry and Community Health, a panel of religious leaders, health care experts, medical experts and community activists formed at the request of the Los Angeles Grocery Workers and Community Health Coalition.

While neighborhood grocery stores have historically served their communities by providing both services and a place of stable employment for middle-class employees, the report states that this is no longer the case.

"We are concerned about the second-tier workers, hired after the strike, who receive lower wages and fewer benefits, and we are concerned about the residents of low-income neighborhoods who lack access to quality groceries," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and co-chair of the commission.

On Sunday, Albertsons employees voted "overwhelmingly" to authorize the union to call a strike if negotiations reach an impasse, said Mark Shimpock, spokesman for the seven Southern California locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

"During the last dispute, these three giant corporations broke the law to gain some tactical advantage over their employees," he said, adding that Ralphs agreed to play $70 million in a plea agreement last October to settle charges it illegally hired hundreds of striking union workers under fake identities during the lockout.

"Federal anti-trust charges are still pending against all three companies. With this record, we can't trust them to look out for our best interests this time," Shimpock said. "We don't want to go on strike, but we will do what we have to do to get a fair contract," said Sharlette Villacorta, the service deli manager at Albertsons in Los Feliz, who has worked for the company for 13 years.

In response to the strike authorization, Adena Tessler, joint spokeswoman for Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons, issued a statement saying that the three chains "remain committed to working together with a federal mediator and the unions at the bargaining table."

Ruth Milkman, director of the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, said no one on either side wants to go through a repeat of the 2003-2004 strike, which is estimated to have cost the three chains $2 billion in sales.

"The question is how can they recover the ground they lost," she said. "They do seem to have learned a lot of lessons from that experience and are determined to do better this time."

Former Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who served on the commission, pointed out that the percentage of workers in the grocery industry who have health care benefits has dropped from 94 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2006. Family members must wait 30 months before they're eligible for benefits.

"Those employees start using emergency rooms," she said. "I pay enough at the grocery store. I don't think we should support the industry by having our taxes provide the health care they don't."

"We're not interested in having the grocery industry Wal-Mart-ized," she added. "If they can pay single-tier wages in Stockton, they should pay single-tier wages in Los Angeles.... I have always supported grocery workers, but I didn't know how draconian the two-tier system was. I do hope this report puts pressure on the store owners."

In addition to urging industry leaders to end the two-tier wage and benefit system, the Blue Ribbon Commission's report also calls on fulfilling commitments to build more supermarkets in South and East Los Angeles.

In 1992, following the Los Angeles riots, Rebuild L.A. secured promises from four supermarket chains to build as many as 32 new stores in underserved areas, said the Rev. Norman Johnson of the First New Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, who also served on the commission.

"Fifteen years later, this report is an opportunity to open up the dialogue about those broken promises," he said.

L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, who in 2002 proposed banning superstores like Wal-Mart in economically depressed areas of the city, said that these areas are also struggling with the grocery industry.

"The same community that lacks access to good groceries also lacks access to good jobs at these stores," he said.

Diamond agrees with Garcetti, saying that the lack of adequate markets in South and East Los Angeles troubled him as much as the inequities of the two-tier system.

"We should be telling the story of the workers at our seder tables. We should remember those in our community who have a difficult time getting health care benefits, a good education and healthy affordable food," he said. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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