"My superior told me early in the year, 'You better save some money. You guys are going to be out a long time,' " said John Canova, on strike from his job in the meat department of Vons' Paramount market. "So what I did was start working six days a week, and I took the extra money and set it away."
Most of the 22,000 meat cutters and Teamsters involved in the Southern California supermarket labor dispute were not as fortunate or savvy as Canova. As the strike-lockout at seven supermarket chains enters its second month today, their financial and emotional ability to stay off the job is being slowly ground down.
The workers are beset by several factors: the economic pressure of living through the Christmas season on strike pay as low as $45 a week and no company-paid medical benefits, the frustration at their unions' inability to sell labor's case to the public, the fact that supermarket shelf shortages have not seriously inconvenienced most customers and the lack of any visible progress in negotiations, which have broken down repeatedly.
(Negotiators for the markets and the Teamsters returned to the bargaining table Wednesday to discuss what a management spokesman called "a significant" new offer from the markets. Negotiations were continuing late Wednesday night.)
"They're getting real discouraged," said a Hughes market meat wrapper who was handling telephone calls at her local's office on a day when thousands of others were picketing in heavy rains.
"If they're not talking, why should we be walking?" asked an Albertson's meat department worker as she stood with a picket sign outside the entrance to a Vons market in Downey.
"We're getting impatient," added another picket at the market, Peter Bongiovanni.
Whether the impatience will push the Teamsters or the United & Commercial Food Workers into accepting some of the union changes in work rules demanded by Southland supermarkets is unclear. What is apparent is that individual employees are far less able to tolerate a prolonged strike than the supermarket chains, which recorded profits ranging from $23 million to $185 million last year.
"I've been living on my savings," said Teamster Mike St. Onge, holding a picket sign outside a Lucky market warehouse in Buena Park. "But after the first of the year I'm going to have to go back to work somewhere."
Even more frustrating for St. Onge and the large majority of affected employees is the fact that they are locked out, rather than on strike.
The only chain that workers are striking is Vons. There, meat cutters and Teamsters have the ability to cross the picket line and go back to work if they agree to give up their union membership, according to letters the market recently sent to the strikers.
The other six chains--Alpha Beta, Safeway, Lucky, Albertson's, Hughes and Ralphs--locked out the two unions in a show of management solidarity when the strike against Vons began on Nov. 5. Those workers have nothing to say about when they will return. Nor can they collect unemployment benefits. Workers involved in any trade dispute are not eligible for benefits regardless of whether they are striking or locked out, state Employment Development Department policy says.
Pressure on Workers
Management's strategy is to put pressure on as many union members as possible to push the unions into accepting the supermarkets' major demands: weakening of union work rules so that the markets can use more lower-paid non-union workers and create a two-tier pay system so that union members hired after new contracts are signed will be paid substantially lower wages.
Both sides have issued no-compromise declarations and accused their rivals of hardheadedness.
The chains, despite their profits, say they must cut labor costs to compete against non-union discount stores and drug stores. The unions say they fear that the markets will manipulate more flexible work rules to cut the hours of higher-paid veteran employees. They insist that any contract include a management promise that the new rules not affect job security, directly or indirectly.
Without work rule concessions from the unions, "the strike will not end," said David Willauer, a spokesman for the Food Employers Council, which represents the markets.
Without a job security guarantee from the markets, "there won't be an agreement," said Jerry Menapace, head of the retailing division of the United Food & Commercial Workers, which represents the meat cutters.
Publicly, the unions contend that the resolve of their members in this strike is higher than it would be over issues of hourly wages. And many Teamsters, like Lucky driver Gerald Costanzo, insist that "we've got to fight this one out 'cause if we don't we'll be dog meat afterwards."
'They Can Starve You'
Joe Foss, a business agent for a Teamsters local in Orange County who spends his time talking to picketing Teamsters, said, however, that such resolve is difficult to maintain as the strike drags on.