July 5, 2005: For the first time in recent history, the grocery contracts in Southern California will be negotiated separately. If it’s done right, it will be an opportunity to address problems that have been ignored in past negotiations.
In June, Teamster leaders had a meeting on how the separate negotiations would proceed. They agreed that the first target would be Stater Brothers. Stater is not a national chain, so it would be harder for the company to take a strike.
Additionally, they were not hit by the battle with the UFCW last year, so they are in a better financial position to improve the contract. Finally, Stater’s is opening a new distribution facility this year and it doesn’t need a labor dispute to interfere.
Regional Organizing Strategy
The plan is to use the Stater’s settlement as a pattern for the others.
This was a good strategy, but then Local 630 Secretary-Treasurer Paul Kenny jumped the gun. In a surprise move, Kenny announced a tentative agreement with Unified Western Grocers.
Even though other locals involved with Unified were not aware of the deal, Kenny scheduled a ratification vote for July 19 at the work sites.
The contract does not expire until mid-September so there was no need for a rushed vote.
Members also wanted written copies of the proposed agreement before a vote was taken so they could thoroughly review the offer.
Then, suddenly the vote was called off. Whatever the reason, now there is the opportunity to use the strategy used in other parts of the country. The union should let the warehouse companies know that each settlement must be better than the previous one, and then stick to it. This has resulted in improved contracts in the industry. It’s time for Southern California to do the same.
February 5, 2005: The contracts that cover about 8,000 Teamster drivers, warehouse workers and office clerks in the Southern California grocery industry are set to expire Sept. 15, 2005.
Coming on the heels of last year’s grueling four-and-a-half month strike and lockout of the UFCW store clerks, these negotiations are sure to be some of the toughest and most demanding in recent history.
Are the employers in a position to take us on like they did the clerks? Is the Teamster leadership prepared to battle the company if necessary? These, and many others, are the questions that rank and filers are asking.
“We will never know exactly what the companies are going to do, and sometimes it is difficult for us to be certain what our Teamster leadership will do. But one thing is for sure: the rank and file grocery industry Teamsters had better be prepared for whatever possibilities we may face,” says Chuck Robinson, a driver for Albertsons.
A New Era
These negotiations mark the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The long-time union negotiating chair, Jerry Vercruse, passed away last year and the new chair is IBT Vice President Jim Santangelo, who is also the head of Joint Council 42.
Santangelo did an abysmal job during the UFCW strike, so rank and file Teamsters had better be prepared if we want these negotiations to be a success.
I recently contacted the California State Attorney General’s office and obtained a copy of the “Mutual Strike Assistance Agreement” that Ralphs (Kroger), Albertsons, and Vons (Safeway) entered into prior to those negotiations.
Mutual strike assistance? I thought these employers were supposed to be competitors! When it comes to taking on organized labor, these employers are allies and they are united.
Teamster Unity Needed
As Teamsters we need to send the employers a signal that we are just as prepared and united. Management needs to get that message from our leaders—but that’s not enough. The employers need to see the same determination from the ranks. They need to see us getting informed, involved and prepared to take action if necessary to defend our contract and our benefits.
Our union needs a coordinated campaign—with regular contract campaign updates, stickers, petitions, t-shirts, rallies and action days. We need to build a member-to-member communication and mobilization structure to maximize Teamster participation in these activities.
The best way for us to avoid a strike is for the companies to see that we are prepared for one. They need see that members are capable of quickly spreading information and taking rapid action. We can demonstrate that ability by building a strong, effective contract campaign starting now—not waiting until negotiations hit a crisis point.
We also need to make a break with the traditional dinosaur methods of contract negotiations. Rank and filers need to be a part of the negotiating committee, not just officials and business agents.
Rank and file members are the ones most affected by the contract and we deserve a seat at the bargaining table. We should be part of formulating the proposals that are presented to management.
When an offer is ready to be voted on we need to demand that we have an informed vote.
We need ample time to thoroughly review the proposals, and we need everything available in writing. No reading from the podium or side agreements popping up after the vote.
Power of the Rank and File
Teamsters in the grocery industry need to realize the power we possess and the positive gains that we can achieve if we exercise that power effectively. The power of the rank and file is the key to obtaining a quality contract.
It’s our future. Let’s fight for it!
Frank Halstead, Shop Steward
Local 572, Ralphs Grocery Co.
January 5, 2005: Some Teamster contracts address the issue of excessive overtime. Here are two examples.
Forced overtime is a huge problem in grocery warehousing. Oregon Local 206 has fought for strong contract language limiting overtime in their grocery contracts. Local 206 Secretary-Treasurer Tom Leedham knows about forced overtime from back when he was a rank-and-file member working at United Grocers (now Unified Western Grocers) in the 1970s. “They would work us from 5 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.,” says Leedham.
“In 1977 we struck to get overtime language in our area grocery agreement and won. The language limited forced overtime to two hours a shift and ten hours total a week. To this day, in every contract negotiation, we’ve had to fight to keep this.”
The National Master UPS contract also contains language regarding overtime, though somewhat weaker than what is found in the Local 206 grocery contracts. UPS Teamsters can use this language to pressure management to limit forced overtime.
Some years ago, when UPS drivers at the Bluegrass center in Louisville were being given excessive pieces to deliver, drivers got together to fight the problem using the “9.5 hours” language in the master UPS agreement. Article 37, Section 1 gives the right to grieve if drivers have to work more than 9.5 hours a day for any three days in a workweek. “About 20 of us started consistently filing 9.5 grievances for every period in which there was a violation,” says Local 89 member David Thornsberry, who was the union steward. “We filed almost 200 grievances total. On each of them, we asked that as a remedy UPS hire more drivers. They were inundated with 9.5 grievances, which were taking up about 90% of grievance hearings. As a consequence, they hired about 20 additional drivers at our center over a period of about a year.”
November 4, 2004: Local 386 has signed a first contract for workers at Winco Foods, a growing wholesale distributor in Ceres, Cal. The contract undercuts Teamster grocery standards by keeping members out of Teamster pension and health and welfare plans.
The contract was negotiated by Local 386 Secretary-Treasurer John Souza, who just happens to be a trustee of the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Trust!
Instead of Teamster benefits, Winco workers will be in a company health plan and a company-run Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP). Winco will offer a 401(k), but will not match employees’ contributions. Under the company health insurance plan, the company will pay 85% of covered medical costs.
The union leadership’s initial bargaining position was that members get Teamster pensions and health and welfare. But they dropped this demand when management offered the ESOP and company health insurance.
With about 230 members eligible to vote, the six-year contract was ratified by 70 to 58.
This has come as a shock to Teamster members at the Ceres facility (just outside Modesto) who transferred there from the Winco facility in Salem, Oregon.
As described in the new Teamster magazine, they were leaders in the organizing drive at Ceres. They gathered signatures on union authorization cards and talked to workers about how the union worked for them in Oregon. There they had full Teamster pension and health and welfare benefits as members of Local 324.
They’re glad to be union again, but think the new agreement could have been a lot better. “The plus is that we got a contract,” says Winco driver Rick Denton. “The big negatives are that we did not get a Teamster pension or health insurance. And wages are way too low for new hires.”
New hires will actually make $1.28 an hour less under the new contract than they did before the contract was signed. Under the new agreement, newly hired drivers will be paid $11.72. Management sold members this concession by crediting current drivers with 3120 extra hours on the wage progression schedule.
These concessions came just months after Local 324 in Oregon won major improvements for Winco Teamsters there.
Where is the IBT?
Allowing Winco to operate without Teamster benefits will undercut grocery members throughout California. Major grocery contracts are coming up, and other locals are already being undercut, including nearby Stockton Local 439, which has Safeway, Unified Western Grocers and Ralphs to contend with.
So why was this contract approved by the IBT? All grocery distribution contracts are supposed to be approved by the Regional Warehouse Division Director (Steve Vairma of Denver Local 435), to preserve area standards. The contract also had to be approved by Joint Council 38. This contract should have been sent back to the bargaining table to protect the pension rights of the Winco workers and the standards of thousands of Western grocery Teamsters.
November 4, 2004: Milwaukee Local 200 has won a strong new contract for the 650 Teamsters employed as warehouse workers and drivers at the Roundys grocery warehouse in Wauwautosa, Wis.
The union beat back management demands that members pay for health care, and won model production standards language. It is a big victory for the Roundys members and for the reform leadership of Local 200 that took office less than one year ago.
Under the new agreement, Roundys Teamsters will continue to have zero co-pay for their health insurance. This goes against the trend in the grocery industry, sometimes supported by top Teamster officials, of shifting health care costs to workers. This was management’s number one bargaining demand.
The union also won model production standards language. The new agreement allows the union to have six members, trained by the union, who will function as internal auditors. These members will monitor the company’s use of production standards.
If there is a disagreement between the union and management over a standard, management’s standard cannot be implemented until the dispute is arbitrated. This is a major improvement at a facility where grueling production standards have been a long-term problem.
The four-year contract includes wage increases of $.40-$.40-$.40-$.45.
Preparation and Priorities
In preparation for negotiations, the new Local 200 leadership conducted a member survey to guide bargaining demands. Members identified preserving health benefits and managing production standards as their top priorities. In addition to the bargaining committee of elected shop stewards, the local set up separate member subcommittees to tackle issues like benefits and production standards. The contract was approved by an 85% yes vote.
“We were all expecting that health care would have gotten hit, but we preserved it,” said Don Janz, a warehouse worker at Roundys. “And we got good contract language. We would have liked more on raises, but given the state of the economy we did all right. The majority of the guys are really pleased. In the 26 years I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen a contract so easily voted in.”