WASHINGTON -- Joe Hansen, named president of the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers Union here in March, told SN the four-month strike-lockout in Southern California provided "lessons for both sides," but added that bad feelings and bad business still remain. He also lamented that negotiations in other Western locales could be just as tough. A former meatcutter in a Milwaukee supermarket who rose through union ranks, Hansen said he hopes for a "political solution" to the core issue of health care. He also stated that better communication between labor and management is key to repairing their strained relationship.
SN: How would you say your style differs with that of your predecessor, Doug Dority?
Hansen: Doug Dority couldn't be [his predecessor] Bill Wynn, and I certainly can't be Doug Dority. We have different backgrounds. Both Doug and I put a big emphasis on organizing, but I will be shifting our focus some. I think it's critical the union stays with its main emphasis on our core industries: supermarkets and retail; and meatpacking, poultry and food processing.
SN: What's on your agenda?
Hansen: There are two or three priorities. The union believes the political climate is not good for this country, and we are going to put whatever effort we can into the political process this year. The one thing that's killing us, and the industry, is the health care crisis. It's created tremendous problems at the bargaining table, and I believe there has to be a political solution.
I think it ought to be mandated that all employers should provide some basic health care. It doesn't have to be a Cadillac plan. But there has been absolutely nothing coming out of Washington from this administration, and that's a tragedy for the country and a problem for us.
We're also going to refocus and intensify our efforts at Wal-Mart, which has changed the dynamic for the big supermarkets tremendously.
SN: Why were the Southern California negotiations so difficult? Can we expect more of the same in other Western markets?
Hansen: There was a breakdown in communication and understanding right at the beginning. I think it came from the very top of those three companies. They gave the union a take-it-or-leave-it proposal in October. When they said they wouldn't change it, they just guaranteed a strike.
I don't think you can say one side or the other side did better. I'm very proud of union members for staying out on the picket lines for as long as they did. They had support from the public and the rest of labor, too. It really dried up the business for all three of those supermarket chains. In the end, the companies had to leave their proposition and compromise. On the critical health issue, the union prevailed for their present employees. We had bargaining with Safeway and Ahold in Washington, D.C., shortly afterward. It wasn't easy, but I think there was a different attitude. Sept. 11 is a critical date for us with expirations in Northern California, Denver and Nevada. They are all going to be very difficult.
SN: Were there any regrets, or things the union might have done differently?
Hansen: Every time you look back, you might say, 'I could've done this differently or done that differently.' But I went out there two weeks after the strike started and thought,
'This thing is over by Thanksgiving.' The stores were empty. We pulled the pickets off Ralph's stores to give the public a place to shop, but the Ralph's stores still remained virtually empty: doing 20% or 30% of business. We never heard this directly from the companies, but what got passed along to us was that they felt we could never pay strike benefits for so many weeks. So they underestimated the ability of the union to support its members, and we underestimated that they would not change their proposal. There [are] lessons that we both learned.
SN: How would characterize the relationship between UFCW and management now? How do you think America views unions today?
Hansen: I worked really hard to become an apprentice and get a union job. It was important to me. I don't know if that's the same anymore. I think the youth of America doesn't understand what unions meant to this country. There needs to be more promotion for what we do for our workers and America in general.
I think it's important to have relationships with all of the employers, but I think some companies are better than others. I think most of them like the industry, want it to succeed, and know it needs good people to succeed. But it still needs work. I don't want to say we're estranged lovers, but we have to have better communication on things before we have another Southern California.