With Calif. strike over, union faces Md. test

Regional grocery pact expires soon at Giant, Safeway, Super Fresh

March 10, 2004|By Stephen Franklin | Stephen Franklin,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. - After settling a 138-day contract dispute in Southern California, the newly named president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union says he's not looking for more fights with grocers.

But union chief Joseph T. Hansen says the test will come soon enough, in Washington and Baltimore, where a contract covering 29,000 workers ends late this month; and in Chicago, where the UFCW has renewed talks with the Dominick's chain.

"If Safeway comes to the table, talking like they did in California we'll have another strike," Hansen said, referring to the Washington-Baltimore talks with Safeway, Giant and Super Fresh supermarket chains.

Dominick's last offer, in November 2002, was resoundingly voted down by union members, a move that prompted owner Safeway Inc. to put the chain up for sale. Safeway has since decided to take the chain off the market, and the union and company recently began a new round of talks for a contract covering about 11,500 workers.

Hansen, a former Milwaukee meat cutter who rose through the UFCW's ranks, is attending the annual winter meeting of the AFL-CIO.

The highly publicized grocery dispute, which idled 59,000 UFCW workers at three Southern California grocers - Albertsons Inc., Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc. - is one of several shadows haunting labor leaders.

John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for most of the nation's unions, set the mood for the three-day gathering yesterday, saying the "jobs crisis" is organized labor's top priority.

Since January 2001, the nation's factories have lost 2.8 million jobs. Overall, U.S. job losses have reached 2.2 million.

Andy Stern, president of the 1.5 million-member Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest union, said organized labor should exert its "maximum strength" against increasingly "determined employers."

Waging one of labor's largest confrontations in many years, officials of the 1.4 million-member UFCW describe their effort as a victory, saying the union held the line on many of the grocers' demands and kept its workers rallied together.

Others, however, note that the union wound up accepting a lower wage scale and lower benefits for newly hired workers. Though the supermarkets' workers voted for the contract, others complained that they had expected more after the long, financially punishing dispute.

In related news yesterday, Kroger Co. and Albertsons Inc., reported quarterly earnings that were sharply lower because of the 4 1/2 -month strike and lockouts in Southern California.

Albertsons said its fourth-quarter income fell 37 percent, and larger rival Kroger reported a $337.4 million loss for the period, which included a large charge.

In the three months that ended Jan. 31, Kroger's loss amounted to 45 cents per share, compared with earnings of $381 million, or 50 cents per share, a year earlier.

Albertsons said it earned $130 million, or 35 cents per share, compared with profits of $205 million, or 54 cents a share, in the fourth quarter of 2002.

In addition to taking a bite out of grocers' profits, the labor dispute exhausted the union's strike fund. Union officials said they spent almost $100 million from their strike fund.

In the wake of that dispute, which was resolved late last month, union officials said they have learned some lessons and re-evaluated some priorities.

The union's effort to organize giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will be re-examined and expanded, Hansen said. The union has been trying to organize Wal-Mart workers for the past few years but has not had any success in the United States.

Wal-Mart's lower costs became a factor in the Southern California dispute, with established grocers saying they needed to trim expenses before Wal-Mart gained ground.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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