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Schnucks, union spar in court over employee handbilling

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Schnuck's Teamsters picket

FILE PHOTO: Charlie Pons, (left), a Teamsters Union member, pickets an Arnold Schnucks store with other members on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. The union is boycotting to call attention to its disapproval of a Schnucks warehouse it says was built partially with TIF funds and hires non-union workers. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

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Schnucks managers and union members faced off in court this week over whether the grocery store chain violated labor laws by ordering warehouse workers to stop handing out fliers at store entrances to protest job cuts.

One of the laid-off union employees testified he was thrown out of a Schnucks store for wearing an orange union T-shirt while shopping, and a union representative testified he was “intimidated” by a store manager who demanded he leave the grocer’s property while handbilling. Schnucks denies the charges.

Maryland Heights-based Schnuck Markets Inc., a privately owned company that operates 99 stores in five states, has 14,000 employees, 75 percent of whom are represented by one of various unions.

Whether its union warehouse employees have a right to hand out fliers on Schnucks property to protest layoffs is central to charges their union, Teamsters Local 688, filed with the National Labor Relations Board in April, alleging unfair labor practices.

Local 688 claims the employees have a right to hand out fliers on Schnucks’ property. Schnucks disagrees and contends the employees — whether they are union or not — have to follow a solicitation policy that required permission from store managers before they can hand out fliers. The policy was recently changed to prohibit solicitors of any kind.

After an investigation, the NLRB issued a complaint in late June alleging Schnucks’ denial of access to store property and ejection of an employee from an Alton Schnucks store while wearing a union T-shirt interfered with or restrained employees in the exercise of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB is an independent federal agency that enforces labor laws.

At a two-day trial held Tuesday and Wednesday in downtown St. Louis, lawyers for Schnucks, the union and the NLRB’s office of the General Counsel questioned union representatives and Schnucks employees about encounters between union members and store managers during five months of protests and handbilling.

Union members began handbilling outside the entrances of Schnucks stores in April after the grocery chain announced it planned to terminate the employment of about 200 union warehouse workers in Bridgeton, in addition to some managers, when it opened a new warehouse in nearby Kinloch. The jobs were outsourced to a third-party logistic provider that employs nonunion workers. The Teamsters union, which has nearly 7,000 members, called for a boycott of Schnucks stores in June as the labor dispute intensified.

Local 688 business representative Mike Schlueter, a former 27-year Schnucks warehouse employee, testified Tuesday that he participated in handbilling with Schnucks employees more than 100 times since April. Store managers repeatedly told handbillers to leave the premises before calling police. “These folks are employees of Schnucks and have the right to be on the property,” Schlueter testified.

At times, store managers exhibited intimidating behavior to the union members and representatives, Schlueter said, describing a female Schnucks manager in St. Charles County who “told me she was going to physically remove me from the property,” he testified, adding, “I told her she should rethink that.”

Richard Klug, a 22-year warehouseman at Schnucks’ Bridgeton warehouse, testified that Schnucks had notified him that his job would be terminated in either September or October as part of the shift to the Kinloch facility.

On April 24, Klug testified that during his nonwork hours, he visited a Schnucks in Alton while wearing an orange union T-shirt with a message referring to Schnucks as “the greediest stores in town,” a play on the Schnucks’ motto “the friendliest stores in town.” Klug testified that while shopping, a store manager told Klug that his shirt was a form of protest and that he had to leave the property.

On the stand, Thomas Moore, co-manager of the Alton Schnucks’ store, disputed Klug’s account and said he had told Klug he could continue to shop if he turned his shirt inside out.

“Was the tone of your conversation threatening?” Schnucks’ attorney Kevin McLaughlin asked Moore.

“No, it was really calm,” Moore testified, adding that he had never called police to have Klug removed.

Other witnesses Schnucks called included Ryan Cuba, Schnucks’ chief store merchant, who testified that the chain’s solicitation policy is designed to minimize disruptions to customers and to create a safe shopping environment. Cuba said Schnucks stores used the area immediately outside the entrances and exits to sell hanging baskets, pumpkins and other merchandise.

“We have received customer complaints,” Cuba said about the handbillers’ presence at the doors.

Union members testified that after they were told by police at multiple stores to leave Schnucks’ property, they moved to public areas such as sidewalks near stores. However, those areas were less effective because there was less foot traffic, they said.

“People don’t want to stop when they’re driving 20 mph to get an informational piece of paper,” Klug testified.

In opening remarks Wednesday, McLaughlin, Schnucks’ attorney, said the company had legitimate business reasons for its solicitation policy. “We believe the evidence will support the company did not violate any provisions of the (National Labor Relations Act),” he said.

A decision on the case, held at the Robert A. Young Federal Building, is not expected this week.

Among those observing the trial was Dan Garrick, 41, of Florissant, who has worked at the Schnucks warehouse in Bridgeton for 12 years and was notified by Schnucks that he will be among those laid off in coming weeks.

“The CEOs don’t care about employees anymore,” Garrick said. “I have a 16-year-old son in high school and I guess I’ll collect unemployment or hopefully find something else. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I never thought I’d be in this position.”

The long-running dispute with the warehouse workers comes amid Schnucks’ contract talks with another union, United Food & Commercial Workers Local 655, which represents thousands of Schnucks cashiers and other front-of-store employees. Local 655’s contract with Schnucks expired in May and has been extended until a new contract is signed.

Solicitation ban

Schnucks enacted a new policy in late August that banned all solicitors at its stores, a decision that drew outcry from charitable groups, including the Salvation Army, that have sought donations at the chain for decades.

Union officials say Schnucks’ solicitation ban was prompted by the allegations of unfair labor practices. In an emailed statement this week, Schnucks’ spokesman Paul Simon said the union issue was not related to the policy change.

“We moved our donation programs and our support of area nonprofits from the store front to our successful My Schnucks Card (eScrip) program,” Simon said.

The solicitation by nonprofit groups in front of Schnucks stores was a point of discussion during this week’s NLRB trial.

“You’d agree Salvation Army and Girl Scouts sashes are different than what you’re wearing,” McLaughlin asked witness James Barrett, a union warehouseman at Schnucks’ Bridgeton facility who testified he wore union T-shirts while handbilling as many as 50 times this year.

“I do not have a Girl Scout sash,” Barrett replied.

Lisa Brown • 314-340-8127

@lisabrownstl on Twitter

lbrown@post-dispatch.com

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