California's public retirement system asks grocery chains to resolve strike

| Friday, January 23, 2004

The California Public Employees Retirement System is encouraging three grocery chains under strike in the southern part of that state to resolve its differences with its workers and bring the strike to an end.

The retirement agency, known as CalPERS, wrote letters to Steven A. Burd, chairman, president and CEO of Safeway Inc., which owns Vons; Lawrence R. Johnston, chairman, president and CEO of Albertsons Inc.; and David Dillon, chairman of Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs.

Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs are the targets of the California labor action, which centers on health care benefits. The strike started Oct. 21 and covers more than 800 Southern California stores operated by the three companies, which make up roughly 60 percent of all groceries in the southern half of the state. More than 70,000 workers are taking part.

All three letters – sent by CalPERS and singed by Rob Feckner, vice president of the CalPERS board of administration and chairman of the CalPERS investment committee – noted that the system owns tens of millions of dollars worth of stock in the three companies. The letters urge the firms to resolve their dispute with the workers “fairly and expeditiously.”

“As a long term investor, we believe that fair treatment of employees is a critical element in creating long term value for shareowners,” Feckner wrote. “Fundamental to the fair treatment of employees is a reasonable health care plan that provides basic health care for your workers.

“In addition we feel that your corporation's blatant disregard for quality of life issues for your long term employees is having a significant impact on our investment in your corporation,” he added.

The retirement system has considerable clout. According to information contained in the letters, CalPERS altogether owns nearly $180 million in stock in the three companies.

The CalPERS action is one of several that are stepping up pressure on the companies to resolve the dispute.

The AFL-CIO – parent organization to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is conducting the strike – has called on its members across the United States to take actions against the three grocery chains, including bringing picket lines to markets outside the strike area.

Those stepped up efforts included a protest by more than 1,000 people at Vons corporate headquarters in Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, The Associated Press reported. During that incident, several labor and religious leaders were arrested for trespassing on Vons' property.

In addition, The AP reported recently that the AFL-CIO had assigned two of its top leaders to coordinate national strategy in support of the strike. Richard Trumka, the labor group's secretary treasurer, and Ron Judd, another to AFL-CIO official, will coordinate activities outside the strike zone and contact executives of the national firms behind the California chains.

“We're bringing the pickets to new markets, additional markets other than Southern California,” Sarah Massey, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, told Land Line. “We have brought pickets to the Bay Area and Seattle previously, and those I think are definitely markets we're looking at. … Anywhere where Safeway has a big market, we're going to look at.”

At this point, Massey said, the pickets are planning only for grocery store locations, and will not include distribution centers.

The grocery worker strike in Southern California has dragged on despite numerous attempts to end it.

The last was a round of secret negotiations between union officials and representatives of Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs that occurred earlier this month. Unlike previous gatherings, this one did not include a federal mediator. However, like others, it ended with no settlement.

Several other labor actions, some targeting the same corporations as the California strike, were either averted, or started and were settled since the California strike began.

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.