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Options open in grocery dispute

LA Daily News

If the grocery union’s vote to authorize a strike against the chain markets has you running out to stock your pantry, breathe easy.

The strike vote passed overwhelmingly Sunday, according to a United Food and Commercial Workers spokesman, but a strike against Vons, Ralphs and Albertson’s is not imminent. Neither is a worker lockout.

Both sides have many ways to up the ante without locking out workers or striking.

The unions can:

Call for a sick-in.

Disrupt the work flow by following job descriptions to the letter of the law. Baggers could meticulously sort goods before packing items and stockers could spend so much time aligning canned goods that the shelves would be half empty.

Cancel the contract, but not strike. This worked for Dallas and Houston grocery unions, which got a contract after canceling the deal, according to a union Web site

The chains can:

Make workers nervous by hiring new, nonunion workers. Boosting the ranks is important because unemployment is so low the chains will have a hard time finding replacement workers at a moment’s notice.

Stockpile goods so the flow of deliveries is not affected by a job action.

Cancel the contract but not lock out workers.

Both sides can:

Break off talks.

Agree to binding arbitration. Each side would present its case and a mutually agreed upon arbiter would judge the merits of each argument. This isn’t too likely because neither side wants to relinquish control of talks.

Consumers should prepare to see these tactics in action, said Ken Jacobs, a labor expert at University of California at Berkeley.

“Both sides are jockeying for power in the negotiations,” Jacobs said. These options put pressure on the other side without the consequences of a strike or lockout.

The chains don’t want to risk losing customers to alternative grocers like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s as they did three years ago. During the 4 1/2 -month strike in 2003 and 2004, one of the longest in the nation’s history, the chains lost an estimated $2 billion.

Many union workers are still recovering financially from the last strike and they will lose retroactive benefits negotiated in the new contract if they boycott or strike.

No talks are scheduled for this week, but both sides have said they are willing to resume bargaining.

“We fully expect negotiations to continue at the table within the next week or so,” said Brad Chase, a spokesman for the chains.

The chains and union have been locked in contentious negotiations since before the three-year contract expired March 5. The contract covers almost 70,000 grocery clerks. The union already voted to authorize a strike vote against Albertson’s.

The markets voted in April to lock out employees if workers at one of the chains strikes, and the union has walked away from talks three times.