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Food 4 Less, Southern California UFCW Locals Come to Tentative Contract Agreement

COMPTON, Calif. - With reverberations from last year's West Coast grocery industry job action still being felt, price-impact supermarket chain Food 4 Less, based here, late last week reached a tentative agreement on a new labor contract with United Food and Commercial Workers Locals 135, 324, 770, 1036, 1167, 1428, and 1442 in Southern California. The collective bargaining agreement covers about 5,700 associates at 101 Food 4 Less-operated stores in Kern, Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties.

A division of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., Food 4 Less currently runs 137 price-impact, warehouse-format supermarkets under the banners Food 4 Less in Southern California, Nevada, Illinois, and Indiana, and as Foods Co. in Northern California.

Observers said this latest settlement shows the continued impacts of the labor dispute that began last year in Southern California and stretched on for four and a half months. "Both the supermarkets and the workers took a beating during the other strike," said Newport Beach, Calif.-based labor attorney Roger Schnapp. "The supermarkets perceive that they are still suffering an adverse impact, and some of the workers are still angry with the union over what happened, as evidenced by their comments to the local press and at local union meetings. I think neither side wanted another strike/lockout, and the union would have had a much harder time persuading the workers/members to go out on strike, or risk a lockout, today than they did the last time. While the supermarkets may have paid dearly for their negotiating posture, the workers certainly benefited little, and may even have ended up with a worse settlement, as a result of the strike."

The tentative settlement involving Food 4 Less was reached following several months of negotiations. Unionized workers had been working under an expired contract since late February. Only two weeks before news of the agreement broke, a majority of Food 4 Less employees turned down the company's last contract proposal and voted to strike. As in other recent and ongoing labor negotiations in the grocery industry, the major issues in the Food 4 Less contract focused on health care and wages.

"The union is pleased that we were able to come to a tentative agreement without having to take economic action," Ellen Anreder, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, told the Los Angeles Daily News. The union would not comment further.

The seven Southern California UFCW union locals have agreed to recommend ratification to their members. The union locals will schedule voting dates on or about Oct. 4. Details of the tentative agreement were not released by either Food 4 Less or UFCW.

Kroger recently reported that its second-quarter earnings plummeted nearly $50 million from the same period last year, which it attributed to continuing effects of the four-and-a-half month labor dispute in Southern California. Kroger-owned Ralphs was one of the grocers involved in that dispute.

When asked what effect the tentative settlement might have on other negotiations currently ongoing in other locations, such as the Bay Area and Colorado, Schnapp replied: "Hard to tell. The further you move geographically, the less impact on employees. Also, the union has clearly been trying to predispose the workers to believe that what happened in Southern California [during the previous labor dispute] -- the workers lost big-time -- won't happen where they are. The Bay Area is a much stronger union area than Southern California. . .so a strike might be more effective. On the other hand, I believe the stores will be equally determined and the result will be the same. Certainly one of the benefits the stores should get out of the four-and-a-half month strike is having put everyone on notice that they are willing to take a strike/lockout to back up their negotiating position. In the risk-benefit analysis that every employer must do, certainly the conventional wisdom is that if you take a strike at one location, there will be benefits at other company locations with negotiations in the future. Notwithstanding this, unions often can persuade employees/members that being tough will reap benefits and we may see a replay of what happened in the four-and-a-half month strike."

-- Bridget Goldschmidt
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