Ralph's Supermarkets Charged in Labor Dispute
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here in Los Angeles a federal grand jury has indicted the Ralphs Supermarket chain. It's accused of engaging in a companywide course of criminal conduct during a labor dispute two years ago that affected much of Southern California. The indictment says Ralphs violated various labor laws to subvert the grocery workers union. The company could face fines of more than $100 million. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN reporting:
Prosecutors laid out the 53-count indictment in more than 100 pages. They accused the Ralphs Grocery Company of illegal hiring practices, falsifying federal documents and obstruction of justice. US attorney Debra Wong Yang says during the four-and-a-half-month grocery labor fight, Ralphs secretly rehired nearly a thousand workers it had locked out of its 300 stores.
Ms. DEBRA WONG YANG (US Attorney): Ralphs concealed the fact that it was illegally rehiring workers by causing those workers to return to work under assumed names and with false Social Security numbers.
KAHN: Wong says the company allegedly covered its tracks by relocating the workers to different stores so they wouldn't be recognized. It also made the workers wear fake name tags and even let them cash their fraudulent paychecks at Ralphs stores. Wong Yang said with experienced workers back in the stores, Ralphs had a distinct advantage over the union.
Ms. WONG YANG: It was able to operate much more efficiently and profitably. As a result, Ralphs was able to extend the labor dispute to the distinct detriment of the unions which, by the end of the lockout, had exhausted their financial resources.
KAHN: The union was exhausted. For four and a half months, tens of thousands of its members maintained picket lines at hundreds of grocery stores throughout Southern California and staged rallies like this one that drew 13,000 people into the streets of Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of rally)
Unidentified Man: We are the union!
Group of Protesters: (In unison) We are the union!
Unidentified Man: The mighty, mighty union!
KAHN: With losses mounting into the tens of millions of dollars, the union was forced to accept a weakened wage and benefit contract. But yesterday, as the indictment was announced, Rick Icaza of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 was anything but humble.
Mr. RICK ICAZA (United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770): I feel absolutely vindicated, and I think it's something that had to be done. And we're looking for justice for our people, and hopefully we'll get reimbursement for those victims, including the unions.
KAHN: For its part, Kroger, the parent company of Ralphs, reacted angrily to the indictment. In a taped statement, spokeswoman Lynn Marmer says the company had long admitted that a few managers illegally rehired workers, but she stressed the practice was not widespread, nor was it condoned.
Ms. LYNN MARMER (Kroger Spokeswoman): We've cooperated fully with the federal prosecutor from the very beginning. We've taken disciplinary action against the management employees involved. We truly regret that this happened, and we we are prepared to pay an appropriate fine.
KAHN: But retail analyst George Whalin says despite Kroger's mea culpa, the indictment is damning to the company.
Mr. GEORGE WHALIN (Retail Analyst): Consumers want to do business with companies that are honest and ethical and that are doing the right thing. And if, in fact, they were doing this, this is not good for Ralphs, and it's certainly not good for the Kroger company.
KAHN: Whalin says especially since Ralphs has just recently won back customers lost during the bitter labor fight. Federal prosecutors say the investigation will continue and that additional charges, including some against specific corporate officers at Ralphs and Kroger's, may be filed in the future. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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