Safeway Strike’s Dismal Background

by Charles Walker

The Safeway strikers troubles began in 1992 when Safeway built a multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art warehouse distribution center in Tracy. Then the company announced it would turn over the management of the distribution center to a third-party management contractor.

Further Safeway said it would fire the 800 warehouse workers and drivers at its old location and it would be up to the management firm to hire them, but as new employees.

The Bay Area’s ranking Teamster official, Joint Council 7 President Chuck Mack, at first talked tough, telling the workers on April 13, “We’re not going to pay with the benefits and wages of our membership for the new warehouse in Tracy.” So the union members voted 425-10 to back up Mack and other union negotiators, who also told them that unions representing 2 million California workers had pledged to back a Safeway boycott that began March 21. But on April 26, Mack told the workers that the time had come “to bite the bullet and take a compromise.” Mack said that the workers had achieved their main goals, since they would be allowed to transfer their jobs to Tracy under the new management company.

Further, all outstanding issues would be submitted to binding arbitration and, Mack said, while there would be “some pain” attached to the arbitration process, it would give the workers, in his words, “a decent contract.”

Perhaps because the union had already agreed to some work-rule concessions, there were some doubters in the ranks. One veteran Safeway worker said that Safeway had raped them, and that the company offer robbed workers of their dignity. He said he feared that once in Tracy they would be raped again.

Before the end of the year, Mack, in effect, sided with that worker’s assessment. Mack at that time told the workers that the arbitrator had “sucker-punched” them, resulting in an “abortion” that “will also further destabilize collective bargaining within the chain-store industry. We can expect other grocery firms to be demanding this same form of driver pay.”

To some workers Mack’s choice of baseball arbitration was no less controversial than the harsh terms of the arbitrator’s rulings. The workers had ratified an agreement that provided for arbitration all right, but what the workers got was “baseball arbitration,” a method that is most often used to resolve high salary disputes in the sports world, and is otherwise unfamiliar to workers accustomed to the type of arbitration that’s normally used to resolve labor disputes.

The theory of baseball arbitration is that since the arbitrator must accept one side’s or the other’s final proposal with no changes by the arbitrator, the disputing sides will be induced to develop positions close to one another, thus settling the dispute in a way so that each side gets some of what it wants. In any event, if baseball arbitration were a better form of arbitration for workers, unions should be fighting to use it — but wisely, they’re not. So we can conclude that union officials (including Mack) know how much more risky baseball arbitration is!

In 1992, Mack had agreed to work-rule compromises both before and during pre-arbitration mediation sessions, so the management company had little incentive to move closer to the union’s position, which presumably was trimmed to be close to the firm’s position. So the company submitted to the arbitrator a final proposal that contained the “flexibility” (including taking away hourly pay for drivers) it wanted in order to push down labor costs even further. Once upon a time more than a handful of Teamster officials followed the advice of the late Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa, who sometimes exclaimed, “Arbitration hell, strike the bastards!”

But not any more. Not even Hoffa’s son, the current Teamster head, practices what his father once preached. In 1992, Mack was under no legal obligation to submit to baseball arbitration since the Tracy transfer agreement that was ratified by the ranks did not specify it. Nevertheless, Mack later said that if he had to do it all over again, he’d still submit the dispute to baseball arbitration. The only difference, he said, is that he’d pick a different arbitrator!