INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - More than 20 union members working in shifts and toting picket signs have assembled peacefully all week near the three public entrances to the Raley's supermarket in Incline Village, days after thousands of employees went on strike at more than 100 stores due to a long-standing labor dispute with the Sacramento-based private grocery chain.
The strike, the first against Raley's in its 77-year-history, came after all-day talks Saturday failed to secure a new contract for the employees, according to the Associated Press. A midnight deadline was extended at the request of a federal mediator, but talks broke down around 2 a.m. Sunday, said Mike Henneberry, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
About four hours later, union workers with picket signs were at the Incline Village Raley's, along with many other grocery stores throughout Northern California, expressing their displeasure with supermarket chain and encouraging residents to shop elsewhere at "fair-minded Union employers" and suggesting they go at Safeway in Kings Beach and Tahoe City, Save-Mart in Tahoe City and the privately owned Village Market in Incline.
Both sides are reportedly at odds over a proposed wage freeze, elimination of premium pay for Sunday shifts and health care benefits. Raley's says it needs to cut costs in the face of a weak economy and competition from nonunionized companies that also sell groceries, such as Walmart, while union officials say the chain has not agreed to a full audit of its finances, and has been bargaining in bad faith since contract negotiations began.
The sides have been in negotiation for more than 15 months. Due to failed negotiations, Raley's had to implement its corporate plan that freezes pay increases for two years and eliminates Sunday and holiday premium pay, Raley's spokesman John Segale said.
"Something like this is a concern for the holidays and beyond. Ultimately it's going to hurt everybody - the store, the employees and the customers," Segale said.
UFCW attorneys filed unfair labor practices charges due to alleged violation of laws prohibiting harassment, circumventing the union's authority as a bargaining agent and submitting proposals that are worse than previous offers.
"A tragic mistake would be for Raley's management to interpret the union's fairness for weakness," said Jacques Loveall, president of UFCW 8-Golden State, one of the two striking factions (the other is Local No. 5). "Before we move to phase two, we are hopeful this measured action will be effective in bringing Raley's back to the bargaining table. We have additional personnel and resources to escalate the action, if need be. Naturally we prefer to engage in constructive dialogue rather than deepening the wounds."
As of Wednesday, Segale said no meetings are planned for the sides to continue negotiations.
West Sacramento-based Raley's employs 13,000 people at 115 stores in California and 13 in Nevada operating under the Raley's name, as well as Bel Air Markets, Nob Hill Foods, Food Source and Aisle 1 Fuel Stations, according to its website. UFCW says it represents 7,400 of the chain's employees.
Not all locations are a part of a union, Segale said, and different departments of the store are a part of varying unions.
"Workers are members of seven different unions," Segale said. "Some members may have decided to honor the picket line and not cross, but that's more of a support for a union, not necessarily their union that is striking. It varies from store to store."
Segale said the Incline Village store is the lone Nevada store impacted by the strike, as it's the only one that employs members of 8-Golden State.
As of Wednesday, 33 union employees were still on strike at the 72-employee Incline Village store, Segale said, which has been and will continue to be open.
"The rest of the union and non-union people are back to work," he said.
This week, more union employees are crossing the picket line throughout the region, Segale said, with more than 50 percent back in the stores working as of Wednesday, and replacement workers have been hired in some locations.
Wages for those replacement workers, will be "competitive based on experience," he said. On average, Raley's pays between $9.10 to $9.60 per hour in union wages for baggers, and between $9.25 and $21.13 per hour for clerks and senior clerks.
As of Wednesday, the Incline Village store - which has signs posted on its front windows informing people the store is "OPEN to serve you" and advertising immediate job openings for replacement workers - had yet to hire replacements, Segale said.
While the Incline store struggled initially during the strike, sales and customer flow were picking up as of Wednesday, Segale said, likely aided by special deals involving free items of food for certain dollar-amount purchases
"We're rolling out various incentives in an effort to reward our customers who continue to support us, and to bring others back who might have been swayed to go elsewhere," Segale said.
On Lake Tahoe's South Shore, picketers were out this week at both Raley's locations. Strike Leader Luke Adams, who stood outside the Raley's near Stateline on Monday, said he's worked for the company for the last 12 years on the South Shore and had no qualms when it came to joining the picket line.
"The benefits we have are going into corporate hands, and we've got to keep them," Adams said. "I'll be out here as long as it takes. There's no fear involved."
Adams, who earned $21 per hour as the store's head meat cutter, said he's willing to take a severe pay cut - the union will pay him $100 for the first week of the strike - to fight for what many of the strikers said on was their main concern: health care benefits for retirees.
Debra Hoyopatubbi walked past the strikers on Monday as she entered the Raley's at the South Shore "Y" to get her groceries. Hoyopatubbi said she's been treated very fairly during the 12 years she's worked for the grocery store near Stateline, and she will continue to work and shop at Raley's.
"Greed in our country is huge. We need to count our blessings," Hoyopatubbi said. "I really believe the contract (Raley's CEO) Michael Teel is offering is a very fair one. Each side should give a little in these hard economic times."
- Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter Axie Navas and The Union reporter Jennifer Terman contributed to this report.