LOS ANGELES -- Between 12% and 20% of union members involved in the Southern California labor strike have not returned to their jobs and have probably left the industry, an official of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union told SN last week.
That translates to between 7,100 and 12,000 clerks out of the 59,000 who struck Safeway-owned Vons and were locked out of Albertsons and Kroger-owned Ralphs for 20 weeks, ending March 3.
Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324, Buena Park, Calif., said the union is not sure of the precise number of dropouts yet "because people are still coming back to work."
However, he cited the extreme example of a Ralphs store in his local's jurisdiction where 50% of the employees didn't come back. He said those employees are being replaced with new hires -- including some of the replacement workers hired by the chains during the labor dispute -- who will fall under the Tier 2 provision of the new labor agreement, which features lower wages and benefits.
In a separate development, Ralphs disclosed plans last week to permanently close 15 underperforming Southern California stores over the next 60 days. The company said the closures were not related to the labor dispute, although industry observers told SN the chains involved in the strike-lockout might opt to close underperforming stores more rapidly after the settlement because of the drop in sales during the dispute, which would have detracted from those stores' profitability.
One local source told SN Ralphs may convert some of the shuttered stores to the Food 4 Less warehouse format "so they don't have to give the sites up to competitors." He also said the chain may close eight additional underperforming stores.
In another echo of the labor dispute, employees at Gelson's Markets, an 18-store division of Arden Group here, rejected the contract signed by their union counterparts at the three chains. Gelson's had opted out of the labor dispute by signing a contract extension with the UFCW and agreeing to allow employees to vote on whatever agreement the industry negotiated with the other three companies.
However, Arden disclosed last week that, with 36% of Gelson's employees voting, the agreement was rejected. The UFCW's Conger said officials from the four locals whose members work at Gelson's are talking with their members "to determine what they didn't like and whether we can change it."
He said a re-vote is likely within the next couple of weeks, though he said he doubted a strike would result.
Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif., which also opted out of the labor dispute, signed a "me-too" agreement prior to the strike-lockout in which its employees agreed to accept the terms of the new contract, which they have already done.
Asked if the UFCW was disappointed at the degree of dropout from its membership ranks, Conger told SN, "As long as the people are doing better for themselves, then we're not disappointed. Our only disappointment would be if they gave up their supermarket jobs to do something not as good."
Conger also expressed concerns regarding returning union members, noting that the transition back to their jobs has not been a smooth one for all employees. "We're not very pleased with the position the employers have taken on certain issues, so the return process has been rocky," he said.
A local source told SN the issues involve pay scales for general merchandise clerks who have worked enough hours to earn journeyman clerk pay, but who were surprised to find they were being paid the Tier 2 rate under the new agreement rather than the higher rate they had anticipated.
Conger said the union has filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board over the pay issue.
Ralphs said the decision to close the 15 stores was made following its annual review of operations, noting each of the stores scheduled to close has experienced declining sales over an extended period of time.
"None of these stores generates enough sales nor has enough customers to pay for the increasing cost of their operation," John Burgon, Ralphs president, said last week. "Closing them will help us operate more efficiently."
The closures will result in the reassignment of approximately 600 Ralphs associates to other stores where possible. Conger told SN the move of employees from closed stores to other Ralphs locations was facilitated by the failure of large numbers of union members to return to their jobs.
Meanwhile, the three chains involved in the strike-lockout tried to recoup some of the business they lost during the labor dispute by becoming more promotional. Vons, for example, offered nine items free and price reductions on orders of a certain size during a 72-hour weekend sale.