By DON SHILLING
VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR
There are two ways to view grocer Henry Nemenz — depending on which side of the picket line you’re on.
Some — such as longtime shopper Tom Ziccardi and Sharon Mayor Bob Lucas — see Nemenz as a hometown operator who cares for his staff, his customers and his community. Both men have given Nemenz their support as Nemenz faces informational picketing that is trying to turn away his customers.
Ziccardi crosses the picket line at Nemenz’s Save-A-Lot store in Poland when he wants to buy groceries.
The 87-year-old Poland resident has been shopping with Nemenz and his late father for more than 50 years and said he won’t let the pickets stop him. He and the grocer know each other by name, and they joked around in the parking lot as Ziccardi entered the store recently.
“Everyone has a right to do what they want in this country. Why should they block him?” Ziccardi asked.
Lucas, a union carpenter in addition to being mayor, came out in support of Nemenz last year when the United Food and Commercial Workers posted pickets at the grocer’s new store in Sharon for about four weeks.
Lucas said Nemenz not only opened the only grocery store in the city, but he also has been active in community events and making charitable contributions.
“He’s been so good to the community that the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce honored him as ‘Man of the Year’ last year,” Lucas said.
On the opposite side of Ziccardi and Lucas is Local 880 of the UFCW, which has conducted informational picketing at Nemenz stores in Poland and Struthers for the past two years. It also has picketed a Nemenz store in Hubbard, which is now closed, and the Sharon store.
The first picketing went up in Hubbard when the union said that Nemenz wronged workers of the former Patton’s Sparkle. Nemenz would not hire the former union workers even though he opened a store at the same location, the union said.
Thomas Robertson, Local 880 president, did not want to be interviewed but said in an e-mail, “We believe the picketing is truthfully advising the public that those stores are not union stores and that Henry Nemenz is anti-union.”
In a letter to the Sharon mayor last year, a union official said Nemenz is the biggest nonunion grocer in his operating area and that he is not paying wages and benefits that are as good as those of union grocers.
“We don’t think his behavior is morally right,” wrote Mark Rock, administrative assistant to Robertson.
The struggle between Nemenz and the union is played out daily at stores in Poland and Struthers.
Shortly after the stores open, anywhere from eight to 12 pickets show up at the edge of the parking lots and remain until late in the afternoon. They aren’t workers who have issues with the store but are paid by the union to picket.
They ask people to shop elsewhere because Nemenz stores are not unionized.
The drama between the union and Nemenz is rare, said John Budd, professor of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota. Informational pickets normally don’t last this long, he said.
“The union must think it has a good chance of winning,” he said.
The union probably is hoping that Nemenz will agree to hold what’s known as a card-check election, he said. In this process, the union doesn’t need to hold an election. It can represent a store if the majority of employees sign cards.
Lucas, the Sharon mayor, said he’s bothered by the process of informational picketing because it can force a store to close if shoppers stay away. He said the union should have an election and try to organize store workers instead.
It’s not that simple, Budd said.
The professor said informational pickets can be posted for an indefinite period. But once the picketing says the union is trying to organize a store, federal labor law requires the union to petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election within 30 days.
Unions try to be careful about calling for elections because costs can escalate if employers try to delay the proceedings with legal battles, Budd said.
As the UFCW continues to battle Nemenz on the streets outside his stores, the grocer wonders why he is facing pickets and Wal-Mart isn’t.
After all, Nemenz noted, Wal-Mart has become the nation’s biggest grocer because its Supercenters have a full line of groceries. It has Supercenters in Austintown and Hermitage, Pa., and is opening one in Liberty.
Robertson said the UFCW international union is targeting Wal-Mart but not with picketing. The union has a Web site to promote a national public awareness campaign called Wake Up Wal-Mart.
“Picketing is not the best way to educate the public regarding the world’s largest employer. It is the best way to educate the public regarding a local employer,” Robertson wrote.
When told of Robertson’s comment, Budd said he would revise it slightly: “Local picketing is not the best way to pressure the world’s largest employer, but it can be an effective way of pressuring a local employer.”
Taking on Wal-Mart requires a national strategy, but the union can take on a local grocer one store at a time, he said.
“A local union president, with limited resources, has to pick his battles carefully,” he said.
Organizing Wal-Mart in a particular area would be difficult, he said. If a union petitioned for an election at a store, Wal-Mart could delay the process and drive up the cost by arguing that the election should be held statewide or at all stores in an operating district, he said.
Plus, Wal-Mart is known for taking large steps to prevent unions, he said. Butchers at a Wal-Mart store in Texas voted to organize, and the chain then restructured all its meat departments nationwide so butchers were no longer needed.
The UFCW does have a national strategy for Wal-Mart, but it doesn’t involve pickets, Budd said. The union is relying on a public-relations campaign and working to pass the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow work sites to organize with card checks and not elections, he said.
Robertson, the union president, said Cleveland-based Local 880 is not singling out Nemenz. The union also is picketing at Marc’s stores in Broadview Heights, Berea and Ravenna.
“Other stores will be picketed as time and resources permit,” he wrote.
Nemenz defended the way he treats his employees. He said he offers pay and benefits that are “very comparable” to union stores and don’t include deductions for union dues.
He said he and his son, Henry Jr., are fair to their 1,200 employees because they are concerned about them.
“I’m not staying in business for me. We have 1,200 people counting on us. If I wanted, I could have taken the money and run a long time ago,” he said.
Nemenz operates three IGA stores and eight Save-A-Lot locations, while his son owns nine Save-A-Lot stores.
Nemenz figures that closing the Hubbard store cost him $1 million — $500,000 in store renovations and $500,000 in lost revenues. He blames the picketing for a 40-percent drop in sales at the store.
Nemenz said only two or three former Patton’s workers applied for the jobs, and he assumed that most Patton’s workers had found other jobs.
The union said nine or 10 workers applied and that more would have applied, but they were told they would not be hired. Only one worker was hired, and that person soon lost the job, the union said.
Nemenz denied trying to keep out the Patton’s workers and said he couldn’t recall what happened to that one worker.
In Poland, Nemenz said he is battling to keep his store open because he spent $1 million three years ago to renovate the building, which had been a Phar-Mor and then a Sparkle.
Sales are off 10 percent this year, but Nemenz said he isn’t sure if that’s from the picketing, the opening of the new Rulli Bros. store in Boardman or some other factor.
The store has been losing money, but he added that he can break even at the reduced volumes if he succeeds in refinancing the loan taken out to remodel the store. He also is considering some marketing changes.
In Struthers, sales have continued to be strong despite the picketing, he said. The community has always supported the store, which opened in 1980, he said.
“The picketing there may have increased our business,” he said.
The union also picketed Nemenz in the 1990s. Informational pickets were posted outside his former store on Boardman-Poland Road in Boardman for five years.
Shortly after the picketing stopped, however, he closed that store because Giant Eagle opened a store behind him and offered him a buyout.
Robertson said the current round of picketing will continue in Struthers and Poland until union officials think the public doesn’t need any more reminders that the stores are nonunion. Those stores were selected because they were on well-traveled roads, but he added that the union plans to picket other Nemenz locations in the future.
Nemenz said he will continue to operate his stores the same way he has for 52 years.
“I didn’t stay nonunion by mistreating people,” he said.