UFCW files grievance for unfair labor practices against Smith's

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Retail > Company insists it is bargaining in good faith

By Arin McKenna

On June 13, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1564 filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) for unfair labor practices against Smith’s Food & Drug Centers Inc.
UFCW Local 1564 represents approximately 2,000 Smith’s employees throughout New Mexico in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Los Lunas, Socorro, Grants, Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Taos.
According to the grievance, Smith’s and the union were scheduled to meet on consecutive days between June 2−7, in an effort to reach agreement before contracts for the meat department and retail expired June 7.
The grievance reads: “Smith’s engaged in surface bargaining and consistently refused to engage in economic negotiations. On June 4, 2014, Smith’s abruptly terminated negotiations and suspended all bargaining.”
At the time the grievance was filed, Smith’s had not responded to the union’s request to schedule additional dates for negotiations, although the company has since proposed one date, Wednesday, which the union has agreed to.
Smith’s is also insisting on bringing in a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) negotiator.
Marsha Gilford, vice president of public affairs at Smith’s Food & Drug, explained the company’s position.
“It’s our belief that the charge is baseless and definitely without merit,” Gilford said.
“The inference is that we refused to bargain, and that’s not the case. At earlier meetings, the parties were making very little progress toward agreements whatsoever, and we told the union that we thought the best solution was going to be to bring in outside professional assistance to aid the process, and that we would be calling for a federal mediator to join the negotiations, and we did that.
“We can’t see a reason why the union would object to that, because during the last negotiations, a federal mediator was brought into the talks and proved to be very helpful. We reached an agreement.”
According to a UFCW press release, “it’s early to seek a federal mediator since an economic proposal was not presented. In previous negotiations the parties agreed for mediation, but only after the economic proposal was presented and explained.”
According to Greg Frazier, president of UFCW Local 1564, negotiations hung up on issues that affect the number of hours employees are scheduled for.
Smith’s wants the flexibility to cross-train employees to work anywhere in the store. According to Frazier, using workers in multiple places tends to reduce the number of scheduled hours.
“So that’s a big issue. They want more flexibility, and we want to protect the work hours,” Frazier said.
The union also opposes a practice at several Smith’s locations of scheduling workers for reduced hours on a daily basis, so they are forced to work six days in order to log 38 to 40 hours.
“That’s not good for the employees,” Frazier said. “They want to work and show up and be loyal and faithful, but they also want to be able to have a life and play with their children and fulfill their other commitments.”
The economic negotiations could also be challenging.
The union is seeking to reverse concessions made in 2005 in order to help Smith’s compete with Walmart. The concessions, which apply to any employee hired after 2005, affect 73 percent of Smith’s workforce.
Those concessions, according to the union, include:
• Holiday pay: workers hired after 2005 receive no premium for working holidays and no holiday pay, with the exception of $1 an hour for working Christmas and Thanksgiving.
• No premium pay for working nights or Sundays.
• Reduced vacation allowance.
• Ten-month waiting period to receive health coverage from two reduced benefits plans. Most employees must wait at least seven years to obtain standard coverage. The company offers no health benefits except for vision to courtesy clerks (baggers).
• The wage tier for a clerk hired after June 1, 2005 requires them to work 10,250 hours before they reach the top wage rate of $12.05 food or $11.54 non-food.
• There also is a one-year wait on pension contributions.
The union contends that these concessions are no longer necessary in light of the success of Smith’s parent company, The Kroger Co.
According to Kroger’s 2013 Annual Report, Kroger has posted 41 consecutive quarters of “positive identical supermarket sales,” excluding fuel growth, and $1.5 billion in profit for 2013. On June 19, Kroger posted $501 million in first quarter sales for 2014, excluding fuel.
According to The Kroger’s 2013 Fact Book, the company’s stock price increased by 51 percent in 2013. Fortune 500 has Kroger listed as 23rd among successful corporations.
“It’s probably important to note that regardless of what Kroger’s story is, that negotiations of union contracts are always based on local conditions,” Gilford responded.
When asked if the contention was that local conditions still required these concessions, Gilford responded: “I’m just saying that it’s difficult to take an abstraction and derive things from that when really, you’re looking at local market conditions. Kroger’s financial conditions aren’t broken out into market by market for competitive reasons, so that is nothing we can really discuss.”
According to Frazier, Smith’s has also floated the idea — through letters to employees, not yet through negotiations — of saving on health insurance costs by eliminating spousal coverage or coverage for part-time employees.
According the a UFCW press release, Smith’s health care costs were $9,256,354 in 2013, compared to $8,755,459 in 2012 and $8,334,862 in 2011.
Of the 2,172 active employees, 1,321 employees have health coverage.
Smith’s declined to comment on any specific issues regarding negotiations.
“Our objective is to have productive and meaningful negotiations at the table,” Gilford said, “and we believe that Mr. Frazier’s time is best spent on reaching an agreement there, because that’s where we are going to address his questions and concerns.”
Union members have staged a rally in Albuquerque and are considering additional actions to “get their attention.”
“We’re going to make them bargain in good faith and come to the table and complete the process,” Frazier said.
No action is planned for the opening of the new Smith’s in Los Alamos.
“We have a contract in place and the union will honor any and all agreements,” Frazier said. “We’re hoping all parties will reach agreement.
According to Gilford, reaching agreement is also Smith’s goal.
“Kroger’s has worked with UFCW locals all across the country to reach agreement. And, quite honestly, if the parties stay focused, we can do the same here,” Gilford said.
“Smith’s is extremely committed to reaching an agreement that is going to provide our associates in New Mexico a very competitive compensation package of pay and benefits. It’s our goal here; it’s our goal with every contract.”
UFCW has additional information posted on its website, fairtoshare.com.
The NLRB has not yet ruled on the grievance. Follow the Los Alamos Monitor for updates on this story.