Giant, union seem poised for long fight Neither side has discussed restarting talks

Strike is 4 weeks old

Use of non-Teamster workers is issue causing deadlock

Food retailing

January 12, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

It was a week to retrench and regroup.

With hopes of an easy end to the 4-week-old dispute between striking Teamsters and Giant Food Inc. dashed, both sides appeared to be digging in for a long struggle.

No negotiations were scheduled, and neither side discussed restarting the talks.

Instead, Roger D. Olson, Giant's chief negotiator, was scheduling interviews with the press, not with the Teamsters. The company began arranging regular deliveries of goods to its stores where bare shelves showed the strain of the strike. And it sent a letter to warehouse workers -- also Teamster members -- asking them to come back to work. "If you want to work, work will be provided for you," the letter said.

Teamsters Local 639, the 320 truck drivers who went on strike one month ago, was scrambling to keep its ranks together and to bolster its side with money and support from other unions. Members staged their first major demonstration, one that brought out hundreds of pickets and dozens of police cars to the gates of Giant's Landover headquarters.

But many sources -- from labor attorneys to striking workers -- said privately that the union leadership had failed so far to organize a walkout that could deliver a crippling blow.

Each side might have miscalculated the strength of the other's resolve on the main issue. The two are deadlocked on whether Giant should have the right to hire wholesale food distributors to haul products to the grocery stores.

Although the Teamster truck drivers have been promised job security, over the long term such a move would diminish the number of union members -- truck drivers and warehouse workers -- employed by the company, particularly as it expands into Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

"What is at stake here is the preservation of the work they have always done," said John Steger, vice president of Local 639.

But the company said if the Teamsters aren't willing to give back some salary and benefits, it cannot afford to agree not to hire wholesale food distributors.

In the end, the Giant strike, like most, will come down to how much each side can afford to lose, and how much support it can rally.

Giant officials acknowledged last week that sales have declined slightly, though some analysts believe the impact will be substantial. The first hard figures will not be available until Giant releases sales figures for the quarter at the end of February.

"It will be very noticeable when they report earnings for the quarter," said Kurt Funderburg, a Baltimore-based analyst with Ferris, Baker Watts Inc.

In addition, the supermarket chain has probably lost market share as customers begin shopping elsewhere.

"It will have some effect. How significant it will be remains to be seen," said Funderburg. But in the long term, Funderburg believes that Giant will likely be able to woo back all but a percentage or two of its market within a year.

"I can't see them taking a big hit," he said.

But the strike could cost Giant in other ways. To lure customers back, it might have to run promotions or reduce prices -- moves that would reduce profits into the second or third quarters.

"I think Giant is prepared to say, 'Yeah, we are shop-worn now, but we will be back,' " said Jeff Metzger publisher of Food World, a trade magazine.

As the strike goes on, Giant will have to balance the short-term costs against the possible loss of competitiveness if the company agrees not to use any outside distributors to deliver products directly to the stores.

"Our position is that we will not agree to work restrictions without the benefit of the cost" reductions, said Olson.

The struggle for the Teamsters will come down to how long its members can hold out on $55 a week in strike benefits. The average wage for Teamster members is about $40,000 a year, but many earn far more because the company asks them to work Saturdays and Sundays.

In the meantime, the Teamsters must convince others among Giant's 24,000 union workers to join them on the picket lines. The biggest group, the 20,000-strong United Food and Commercial Workers union, has not taken a position on the walkout. The UFCW leadership was critical of the Teamsters from the outset, saying that Teamsters President Phillip Feaster had failed to contact them until the strike began.

Most labor experts said it is usual for unions that anticipate a strike to line up support from other unions weeks ahead of time. John Singleton, a Baltimore lawyer who often represents unions, said, "You usually walk into a strike like that having already talked to your sister union."

The issue is crucial because if the Teamsters could convince the UFCW, which represents the store clerks, to walk out, Giant would most likely have to close stores and sustain much steeper financial losses.

The Teamsters recently got some help in running the strike from the AFL-CIO. And the Teamsters International has paid for some radio ads explaining its side of the story.

But, for the most part, the union said, it is focusing its attention on trying to drive business away from Giant stores.

"In the street is where you win this," said Steger, the Teamster official. "All the ads on the radio are not as effective as the person-to-person contact in front of a store, explaining what this is about. We are making the point that there are good jobs in this community that aren't going to exist" if Giant wins.

Getting that point across might be hard.

"Somehow the union has to translate this issue into terms the public will understand. For consumers to change their spending patterns, you have to show them there is a moral dimension to the conflict," said Jamin Raskin, professor of law at American University. "The longer a strike goes on, the nastier it turns. Feelings grow more and more bitter. It is like a long drawn-out divorce. The question is whether there is enough solidarity in the workplace to have the strike spread."

Pub Date: 1/12/97

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