LOS ANGELES (PAI) -- A historic core industry of the two major unions in Southern California, retail food, has begun its every-five-years-or-so cycle of bare-knuckle contract negotiations.
First up, and going on right now, is the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) negotiations. Next, in September 2015, the Teamsters' own food employers agreement for drivers and warehouse workers expires.
UFCW's agreement expired March 2 and its seven locals have been enmeshed in negotiations with the major food chain employers for several weeks. UFCW represents supermarket retail clerks, meat cutters and pharmacists. That's 70,000 union workers in stores stretching north from the Mexican border to Monterey County.
Relations have not always been smooth. UFCW Locals 8, 135, 324, 770, 1167, 1428 and 1442 are in for tough negotiating, as usual, with Albertsons, Gelsons, Ralphs, Food4Less, Stater Bros., Super A and Vons/Pavilions.
But the real trench warfare pits the UFCW against the Big 3 - Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons - food chains that forced a 142-day strike-lockout in 2003-2004.
During that time Teamster food local members - drivers and warehouse workers - stepped up and supported their on-the-streets UFCW brothers and sisters. UFCW eventually won, and California state officials are still pursuing court cases against the Big 3 for their joint lockout.
"Obviously, Teamster food leadership and membership are watching and monitoring the UFCW's negotiations very closely," Teamsters Joint Council 42 President Randy Cammack said. "We are joined at the hip in this industry, going back to at least the 1960s."
Thirty years ago the unionized sector of Southern California's food industry had 90 percent of grocery sales. Today, it's about 35 percent. That's a lot of good, union, family-supporting jobs down the drain, Cammack said.
The cause? Everybody and their anti-union, minimum wage-paying brother adding grocery sections to their scabby retail operations. That's you Target, Sam's Club, Walmart and a host of even lesser lights.
And the protracted 2003-2004 lockout moved customers away from union stores.
"We're constantly involved in organizing every segment of the food industry," Cammack said. "And the UFCW is deep into consistently working towards unionizing retail outlets. It's almost like needing more fingers to plug the dike to combat these anti-union excursions into grocery commerce popping up all over."
He added: "Stay the hell out of the non-union stores and shop union, only. It makes a significant difference. Support the companies that provide good medical coverage, good wages and good pensions. That is how you save good union jobs."
Before their contract expires in 2015, thousands of Teamsters Locals 63, 166, 495, 572, 630, 848 and 952 will face the same hurdles from the same company negotiators.
The anti-union incursion is best illustrated at Walmart, where the world-wide, low-paying, anti-union, labor law-breaking behemoth jumped into groceries in recent years. A couple of years ago grocery sales reached 55 percent of the greedy employer's total U.S. revenue.
Yes, this is the same employer that put out holiday collection boxes for customer donations to brighten up the yuletide for its underpaid workers.
Key UFCW negotiator Mike Straeter, president of Local 1442 in Inglewood, Calif., highly values the Teamster-UFCW history of mutual support and interest.
"We need to stick together to protect our members' wages, medical and pension, and to fight off the employers' attempts at takeaways. Our members make a concerted effort to never shop at the non-union outlets. We are negotiating now and will continue at least through the month of April, if need be," he said.
Meanwhile, one of the Southern California Big 3, Albertsons, has been shrinking at the retail level for the past few years, closing lower-performing stores and cutting the workforce. That affects UFCW and Teamster breadwinners. Albertsons' owner, a private investment house, just announced plans to buy the Safeway chain, too.
Teamsters Orange County Local 952 Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Kelly said his local saw members lose jobs and work because Albertsons moved work to a non-union setup in Arizona that sources to Las Vegas. He said he is collaborating with Arizona Teamsters Local 104 and the international union to organize that unit.
Paul Mihalow is Editor, The Southern California Teamster
Photo: UFCW Facebook page.