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Albertson's: This Union Suit Could Really Scratch

News: Analysis & Commentary: LABOR


Class actions against Albertson's test a new tactic

In 1992, after 15 years as a checkout clerk, Patricia A. Jones jumped when her employer, Albertson's Inc., offered her a "promotion" to customer-service supervisor. True, the job paid the same, and she still had to check groceries at her Diamond Heights store, near Los Angeles. But Jones would have a chance to gain valuable experience in tasks such as employee training.

It soon became clear, however, that Albertson's expected her to do the extra work after hours--without pay. For the next four years she worked four or five extra hours per week for free. "I asked about it all the time, and they just said I had to work it out," says Jones, who returned to checking last year.

Jones is a union steward in the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), which in recent months launched a spate of class actions against Albertson's after realizing how widespread her problem had become. The lawsuits allege that the Boise-based chain systematically requires employees to work "off-the-clock," without pay. The union's suits face a key hurdle within weeks, when a San Francisco judge is due to rule on whether they can proceed. If they do go forward, as expected, Albertson's ultimately could be liable for some $200 million in back pay and damages. It also could face work-rule changes that might shave its 6% profit margins, which stand out in an industry of 3% to 5% returns.

The suits are a test of a powerful new weapon for unions. In recent years, the UFCW has gathered worker claims of labor-law violations and forwarded them to private lawyers and government agencies. This led to a record $16 million fine against Food Lion Inc. in 1993 and to an $81 million legal settlement in January by Publix Super Markets Inc. At Albertson's, however, the union has hired its own class-action lawyers and is running the suit itself. If the strategy works, the UFCW may retain a staff of lawyers to bring similar suits in the future, says UFCW President Douglas H. Dority. In effect, the union is enforcing federal labor law on its own--rather than relying on government agencies to do so.

GRIEVANCES. The UFCW claims that off-the-clock work is widespread among Albertson's 85,000 employees, about 40% of whom are union members. The union says it has received more than 4,500 complaints and has substantiated 2,000 so far. An outside polling firm it hired found that a third of Albertson's workers say they have worked without pay at some point.

So far, the union has filed suits in California, Florida, and Washington, and is readying ones in other states as well. Albertson's has tried to get the suits dismissed by arguing that the union must first take any complaints through its own grievance process. However, the Labor Dept. filed an amicus brief in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco saying the suits can proceed. The judge is due to rule on the issue in early March, which would clear the way for the union suits to proceed.

Albertson's executives concede that some managers may prod employees to work without pay, but denies that the abuses are widespread. "We have an excellent record on this," says spokesman Mike Reed. Still, if the union is even half right, Albertson's may not be the industry's highflier much longer.By Aaron Bernstein in Washington

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