retail news in context, analysis with attitude

In the more than three-month-old supermarket strike in Southern California, the unions are making strategy moves even as the chains reportedly consider dramatic actions that would change the nature of the game being played between the two sides.

  • Published reports say that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is working to organize a weekend demonstration of civil disobedience that will attempt to shut down a single Vons store by forming a human chain around it.

    The event is tied to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, and reportedly will be attended by local politicians and religious leaders, in addition to union members.

    Vons is owned by Safeway, and always has been the prime target of UFCW actions since the strike/lockout affecting more than 70,000 employees began on October 11, 2003. The dispute is over compensation and health benefits issues, with little or no progress made in the few bargaining sessions that have been held.

  • The Los Angeles Times reports this morning that there is some strategy disagreement among the seven United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals that are involved in the four-month-old strike lockout affecting Southern California's three biggest supermarket chains - Safeway's Vons, Kroger's Ralphs, and Albertsons.

    Mostly, the argument has been over how to handle Ralphs, which generally has been perceived as the least intransigent of the three chains. Pickets were removed from the Ralphs stores on October 31, but some of the locals apparently wanted to start picketing the chain again to remind consumers that it was involved in the labor strife.

    The solution to the disagreement was to simply let the locals handle things the way they wished. Some decided not to return pickets to Ralphs, while others decided to picket store loading docks.

  • Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn., which holds stock totaling $25 million in Safeway, Kroger, and Albertsons - has voted to urge the chains to solve the labor dispute, echoing a similar move made by the California Public Employees' Retirement System.

KC's View:
While we've generally had the feeling from talking to folks in Southern California that there was absolutely no progress being made, the sense we've had lately is that things may be coming to a head fairly soon…not in the sense of successful negotiations, but in terms of the chains taking some sort of action that will change the game.

The biggest speculation - and we've gotten this from a number of sources - is that the chains are looking to very shortly do whatever is necessary to decertify their Southern California stores and convert them to non-union operations. That could mean closing down operations for a period of time and then reopening them, an option that reportedly is on the table at Albertsons. Or, it also could mean changing the name on the door so as to make a clean break with the past - a solution that reportedly has been considered by Kroger, sources told MNB.

What seems to be fluid at this point in the timetable for such dramatic moves - though we're also told that mid-February is considered to be a kind of "tipping point" at which time the chains might feel not just empowered, but compelled to do something drastic.

Hard to know how decertification efforts might play out in Southern California. But just the knowledge that these possibilities are on the table no doubt puts pressure on the UFCW to figure out a compromise. And as much as civil disobedience might be the kind of drama that it feels can illustrate its cause, it isn’t going to help feed strikers' families and put their kinds through school and pay their mortgages.

The heat is on.