ST. LOUIS -- Observers of the labor scene here told SN the supermarket work stoppage, which began last week at this metro area's three largest supermarket chains, promises to be a long one.
The work stoppage here began last Tuesday when 72% of the members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 655 here voted to strike. The union needed a two-thirds vote to call a work stoppage; the previous week, its members had rejected a management offer with only a 64% vote.
Local 655 represents approximately 10,000 clerks at Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo.; Schnuck Markets here; and Shop 'n Save, Kirkwood, Mo., a subsidiary of Supervalu, Minneapolis. The employers had decided for the first time to bargain together for a single, identical contract as the Great St. Louis Food Employers' Council.
A union spokesman said members rejected the management offer because the raises it contained -- 25 cents an hour for most workers, 5 cents an hour for courtesy clerks -- were too small. The contract also called for some benefit concessions, he added.
The union leadership had urged its membership to vote for the contract, but once it was defeated, Bob Kelly, Local 655's newly installed president, recommended voting for a strike.
A Schnucks' spokeswoman told SN the companies are prepared "for what could be a very long work stoppage."
Gladys Gruenberg, professor emeritus of economics and labor relations at St. Louis University here, agreed. "It will probably take two weeks for what's happened to sink in on both sides, and if it goes longer than two weeks, it's going to go on a long time," she said.
Labor and management's inexperience with labor disputes, observers pointed out, make a swift resolution unlikely.
Noted Neil Bernstein, professor of law with a specialty in labor law at Washington University here, "It's a classic situation of who can take the most pain, and it's hard to know who that's going to be. These employees have never been on strike. These markets have never had a strike. Everyone is green."
The union had originally planned to strike only at Shop 'n Save, and leave the other companies' stores open to "leave shopping options available to the public," according to a union spokesman. However, the Food Employers Council said Dierbergs and Schnucks, following the terms of an agreement worked out by the three companies before the strike vote, proceeded to lock at all Local 655 members.
By Tuesday afternoon, all three companies had union picket lines at their stores, the union spokesman said. He noted that the Teamsters and other unions have said they will not cross the picket lines to work in the stores or make deliveries.
The council said its members are remaining open during the work stoppage, for a limited 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule, with scaled-back services and smaller work crews.
These work crews include more than 4,000 replacement workers hired by the supermarkets, according to the council. Advertisements for replacement workers -- offering wages of $12.50 per hour for full-time workers and $10 an hour for part-timers -- began appearing in St. Louis newspapers after the local rejected the council's contract offer, but before the strike vote.
The Council said it does not plan to offer an alternative to the contract the union rejected. Its spokesman noted, "The Council has said all along this was our 'best and final' offer. It is a fair offer, and we intend to stand behind it."