In the first strike ever to hit the 77-year-old family-run company, union officials say that 7,500 employees are facing the loss of union control over health benefits, loss of premium pay for holidays and Sundays, and a wage freeze for two years. The biggest irritation, said a union spokesperson, is what appears to be an effort to weaken the union and a "take-it-or-leave-it attitude for the last 15 months," by the company during negotiations, which broke down around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, despite the help of a federal mediator.
"We just want to keep what we have," said one worker in front of the Mountain View store on Tuesday. "We don't want to be out here, this is stressful. We understand what they are going through," she said of the company. "Its a tough time, a tough economy."
"We know most of the customers here," said one long-time employee who was picketing with her husband, also a Nob Hill employee. They said they had a mortgage and two daughters to put through college. "We want this settled. We pray every night."
The company has hired non-union workers to keep the store open, one of whom got into an argument with union members on the picket line, workers recalled on Tuesday. A customer eventually stepped in to side with the picketers, they said. The union members cheered every time a customer expressed solidarity with the strike and turned away from the store. Some customers went inside anyway.
The UFCW reportedly has a $60 million strike fund and is paying workers $200 a week to keep the strike going, a big reduction from the $840 a week the highest paid union members make at Nob Hill.
Company spokesperson John Segale did not return calls to the Voice, but has reportedly claimed that the company proposes to keep medical benefits at current levels and that the union is simply using the strike as a scare tactic. United Food and Commercial Workers union spokesperson Mike Henneberry disagreed.
"If you look at their track record over the past three years, they have done nothing but slash benefits for management employees and eliminated retiree medical coverage for employees in corporate offices and a handful of non-union stores," Henneberry said. "They want to apply those same conditions to their union members."
Henneberry said the company proposes to eliminate a trust fund for health care benefits for employees and retirees, and eliminate the trust's oversight board where union representatives hold half the votes. That would allow health-care benefits to be more easily cut in the future, Henneberry said.
In contrast to harmonious labor negotiations in the past, Henneberry called the latest negotiations a "blitzkrieg." He pointed a finger at the man in charge of the company's labor negotiations, Bob Tiernan, former chair of the Oregon Republican Party and a labor relations consultant who helped the Berkeley Bowl grocery store stop a unionization effort, Henneberry said. Henneberry said Tiernan's negotiation style was "completely inflexible" and that his latest proposals were much the same as the ones he made 15 months ago.
Nob Hill employees earn some of the highest salaries in the industry while the chain competes with a growing number of non-union grocery stores. Henneberry said that non-union competition was "a real issue," but questioned whether the company was really suffering. He said in the past the company was satisfied with union contracts similar to what the UFCW has with Safeway and Lucky, where union members urged Nob Hill customers to shop instead on Tuesday.
"If you were in financial trouble you would want to work with employees, not force them out on the street," Henneberry said. "They have told us twice they would allow us to see all their books. Both times they have refused to fully divulge what the numbers are."
"If they are able to break down our benefits it is going to affect everybody," Henneberry said, calling the strike a fight against a continuing "race to the bottom" for all workers.