LOS ANGELES (CN) - Ralphs Grocery Co. fired and tried to scapegoat store managers for illegal hiring practices during the 2003 grocery workers strike, three former managers claim in Superior Court. The managers say they were following Ralphs policy when they hired union members who used false identities.
The 2003-2004 United Food and Commercial Workers strike was a response to major grocery chains' attempts to strip employees of benefits and reduce wages. The collective bargaining agreement between the UFCW and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons expired in October 2003. The union called for a strike against Vons.
According to the complaint, before the labor agreement expired, the three grocery chains signed a secret "Mutual Strike Assistance Agreement," that called for all of them to lock out retail clerks if any of the chains were struck by the union.
Ralphs wanted to keep experienced workers instead of hiring temporary ones, so its senior management created a "strike manual" that contained the clause "under no circumstances should you [district and store managers] knowingly hire members from the striking bargaining unit," according to the complaint.
The word "knowingly," the plaintiffs claim, acted as a "wink and a nod" to store managers that meant so long as they could "plausibly deny" knowing that a worker was a union member, the worker could be hired during the lockout.
The strike was front-page news in California for months, and in January 2004 the unlawful hiring practices were exposed by the media and investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.
In 2005 Ralphs was indicted on 53 federal counts of "participating in a massive conspiracy to try and undermine the labor unions." Ralphs took no steps to identify locked-out workers it hired under false identities, but issued them W-2 forms that were submitted to the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, the complaint states. It adds that the indictment also charged Ralphs with falsely attempting to shift the blame to others.
But the plaintiffs say they had no involvement whatsoever in developing or adopting the procedures or practices. ... The unlawful hiring was caused by and was the result of procedures and practices developed and adopted by Ralphs' senior management."
The plaintiffs say the corporation "fingered low-level managers and offered-up plaintiffs as scapegoats for defendants' conduct."
Ralphs pleaded guilty and settled for $70 million for its unlawful hiring, after extracting $200 million in wages and other concessions, the complaint states.
They claim Ralphs gave certain employees, including the plaintiffs, the choice to resign or be fired.
Plaintiffs Scott Drew, Patrick McGowan, and Karen Montoya had all worked for Ralphs or its subsidiaries Kroger and Fry's since the late 1970s.
McGowan was sole provider for a family of four and was suffering from advanced colon cancer when he was forced to resign and face the loss or a lapse in his medical coverage.
The managers say they were acquitted in federal court before filing suit against Ralphs. They seek punitive damages for wrongful termination, breach of contract, emotional distress, and Labor Code violations. They are represented by Gregory Doll with Doll, Amir & Eley.