As the strikes and lockouts in Southern California, St. Louis, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky continue, with no negotiations in progress in any of the three labor disputes, more labor strife is looming in Phoenix and Indianapolis, where contracts were set to expire late last week and at the end of this week, respectively.
In Phoenix, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99 resumed negotiations last week with Fry's Food, a division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati, and Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif. The local, which represents approximately 14,000 workers in Arizona at the two chains, said after the previous bargaining session on Oct. 13 that labor and management "are still very far apart."
Areas of dispute, according to the union, include wages, health care and pension benefits, cuts in Sunday pay, and the introduction of a two-tier wage system. Commenting on the companies' original offer, Jim McLaughin, Local 99's president, said, "If we were to accept Safeway's and Fry's initial demands for concessions and takeaways, there might actually be a howl of outrage from Wal-Mart workers about lowering industry standards."
Representatives of Kroger and Safeway were not available to comment.
Still, even if talks fail to produce a new contract before the old one expires, a strike cannot begin until the union holds a strike vote, which means that no work stoppage is likely until at least the middle of this week.
In Indianapolis, the nearly 4,000 members of UFCW Local 700 who work at Kroger stores were voting late last week on a contract that union leadership had recommended rejecting.
Pensions are a major issue, with the Local 700 saying that Kroger's contract offer proposes to require long-term employees to work an extra five years before retiring; eliminating disability benefits for workers under 50, even if their disability is work-related; and reducing all future pension benefits to 60% of their 2002 levels.
Lew Piercey, Local 700's president, said, "Outrage is simply too mild a word. It takes an extraordinary amount of arrogance from Kroger to think they can dismantle the pensions of their long-term workers without a public backlash."
Elsewhere, contracts that have expired or are about to expire appear less likely to result in work stoppages.
In Portland, Ore., the multi-employer contract for 4,000 members of UFCW Local 555 expired in July, but the local has no plans to hold a strike vote, Gene Pronovost, Local 555's president, told SN. "We had a big confrontation in Eugene [Ore.] last year," he said. "It came down to the 11th hour."
However, the Eugene settlement, which has been the basis of contracts throughout Oregon, failed to resolve certain issues regarding pensions, Pronovost explained. Those issues, which he characterized as "complex," are what have kept labor and management from agreeing on a contract so far, although Pronovost said the sides are now very close to an agreement.
At A&P, Montvale, N.J., the contract for nearly 1,600 workers represented by UFCW Local 342, Mineola, N.Y., was set to expire late last week, but the company did not seem concerned about a work stoppage.
During a recent conference call with industry analysts to discuss second-quarter results (see story above), Christian Haub, A&P's chairman, president and chief executive officer, said, "We have relatively few contracts coming up in the next six months. In the first six months of 2004, there are a number of contracts that are of some significance, and in some cases we will be approaching the union, even outside the regular expiration of contracts, if we believe that's the right approach to take."
Haub noted that he was extremely concerned about the ongoing labor dispute on the other side of the country. "The outcome of whatever happens in California is something we are all watching very closely," he said. "It's dealing with the issues we're all dealing with."
Health care is one issue in particular, Haub observed. "On the benefit side, I don't think this model is sustainable for the industry considering where everyone else is, not just Wal-Mart, but other retailers that have been moving into our space, whether it's the warehouse clubs or drug stores or dollar stores."
Meanwhile, in California, management and labor continue to talk, but not to each other.
During a press conference in Los Angeles last week, Sarah Amos, the UFCW's international executive vice president and director of collective bargaining, said, "This outbreak of strikes in different parts of the country is not a coincidence. It is part of a planned and coordinated effort on the part of major retail food chains to effectively eliminate worker health care benefits in the supermarket industry."
Later the same day, the three companies involved in the California work stoppage -- Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Ralphs, a division of Kroger; and Vons, a division of Safeway -- issued a joint statement that urged the union to "stop its campaign of confusion" and the UFCW leaders to develop "solutions that recognize the intense competitive pressures and skyrocketing health care costs the companies face."