FCU Of The Year Recognized For What It Did-And Didn't Do-In Strike

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When Steve Weakley became CEO of Vons Employees FCU, he never imagined that his position of leadership at the $230-million cooperative would one day cast him into a storm.

Yet such was the case when a tempest of conflicting labor positions occurred when nearly 59,000 grocery store workers, from meat cutters to cashiers, walked off their jobs in October 2003, in what was to become the longest, costliest retail strike in the history of our country. Union workers had faced-off against the management of the three largest grocery store chains in Southern California, in a labor dispute primarily over health care benefits and co-payment issues for the rank and file.

In charting his credit union's reaction, Weakley's role as CEO didn't limit him to seeing only the management viewpoint in the labor dispute. He could not help but remember his own personal experiences when he, too, was a Teamster and labored in the grocery industry. Later he worked his way into management as controller for Vons, now a division of Safeway, Inc. VEFCU's challenge was to walk the fine line between the picketers and the company representatives, both of whom it counts among its membership.

"I always tried to keep a very balanced approach, respecting our sponsor (Vons) but also understanding that the vast majority of our members are union people," Weakley explained. "I try to understand both sides of the issue, knowing as a credit union we have a commitment to take care of our members and help them as much as we possibly can. That's our mission."

Weakley and his staff of 75 did its best to do just that-take care of their members. While strike activity literally surrounded his credit union adjacent to Vons' massive distribution center just outside Los Angeles, his CU's lobby sought to provide an oasis of mutual respect for both union laborer and management employee.

"It involved everybody from the president of Vons, who is a member of the credit union, to a courtesy clerk, somebody out there bagging your groceries," Weakley noted. "They are both respected members of the credit union."

Weakley said that even during the contentious, ongoing strike, the interaction of union and management members remained cordial within the friendly confines of the credit union even as picketers were outside. That spirit continued throughout the strike without incident. "You would have a member of management come in here and conduct business and say hello to somebody who was a union person who was on strike. They could come here and talk on neutral ground," he reported.

With the majority of his members earning a salary anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000, the hardships of making ends meet while on strike wages became increasing more difficult as time passed. To help lighten that burden, the CU offered loan deferments.

"Just like the fires in San Diego and San Bernardino, this was a similar situation where our members were going through a catastrophic situation," explained Weakley. "Because of that, we would use the very same steps of helping them. As we walked through it we saw a lot of banks and financials were not doing that."

Since the credit union was well capitalized, Vons Employees FCU set aside additional reserves to ensure it's own bottom line didn't suffer significantly. "The reserves, the capital, it is all the members' money," Weakley pointed out. As a result of his efforts, not one member who financed a car or home through the credit union lost their possession. And what becomes even more impressive is the fact that the vast majority of his members are already paying back the balances that were deferred, he said.

In all, Vons EFCU distributed more than $2 million to assist its members. It was because of those efforts by Weakley and his staff that NAFCU recognized Vons Employees FCU as Credit Union of the Year in its largest asset category. It's become a pleasant birthday present for a CU that this year is marking its 50th birthday.

Although the labor dispute was settled on March 1, 2004, 141 days after the initial walk out, some members are still slowly getting back on their feet. And with that, the credit union's efforts continue. From distributing Christmas toys for children, to pizza every Friday in cooperation with the credit union's sponsor, Vons, Weakley said he and his staff are relentless in their dedication to member service.

"We are trying to do as many positive things as we can out there, trying to rebuild the morale. It takes a while for everybody to recover from a thing like this; on both sides," he said.

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