Food Workers Local Has Few Answers for Anxious National Employees

Article excerpt

Excitement and standing ovations may have been the order of the day Monday at Schnuck Markets Inc.'s headquarters in Maryland Heights, when managers were told of the purchase of National Super Markets.

But 10 miles west, at the headquarters of Local 655 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union on Weidman Road in Manchester, the mood was subdued.

For Schnucks - the state's biggest supermarket chain, with annual sales topping $1 billion - the hopes are of increased sales and market share. For Local 655 - the state's biggest labor union with 15,215 members - the anxieties are about how workers and their families will make it.

"We had all these people here today in tears," union president Nick Torpea said. "One said to me, `I'm a single mother, the head of the household. What's going to happen to me?' Another woman's husband recently lost his job, but with her benefits and health care, she felt secure. Now she doesn't."

National employees, 3,500 of whom are represented by Local 655, jammed the local's switchboard. As soon as the announcement was made at noon Monday, Torpea rounded up all the union officials he could to help answer the phones. At 8 p.m. the reps were still busy, only to start again the next morning. That's continued all week.

"Health and welfare, rates of pay, pension, vacation - there's all these issues out there, and I don't know what's going to happen," Torpea said. He doesn't know how many National workers will be hired by Schnucks - or for what pay.

"If you're making $12 or $13 an hour and you go back down to $5, $5.50, $6, that'll kill you," he said. "It's cutting you in half."

For a week Torpea had been aware of the rumors of a merger. He'd checked last week with Schnucks and National, and was told, "Oh, no, don't worry about it."

But early Monday morning Torpea began to doubt those denials. He'd scheduled an unrelated 8:30 a.m. meeting to discuss health and welfare issues with supermarket executives.

"I went into the meeting. Dierbergs was here, and Shop 'n Save was. Schnucks was supposed to be here, and National.

"When my secretary had called earlier and said Schnucks couldn't make it, I didn't think too much of it. …