SAN FRANCISCO — The picket lines have migrated north. Striking workers have become a familiar sight in front of Central and Southern California supermarkets, and shoppers in Sacramento, Fresno and the Bay Area are starting to get used to the pickets as well.
Nearly 200 Southern California grocery workers are picketing stores in Northern California in an effort by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to pressure Safeway Inc. during contract negotiations. Safeway owns Vons and Pavilions.
The Northern California lines began four weeks ago, and the union is targeting 21 Safeway stores and five Vons stores.
Carrying signs and handing out leaflets, union members are using "informational picketing" as a way to inform customers about the strike, union officials said.
"We're asking shoppers in Northern California to buy their groceries elsewhere," said Jill Cashen, national spokeswoman for the union.
Safeway officials say that the northern picket lines are an attempt to divert attention from federally mediated contract negotiations, which resumed Tuesday.
"They are frustrated with negotiations down south, so they are trying to find new ways to pressure us. It will accomplish absolutely nothing," said Alexander Winslow, director of public affairs for the Northern California division of Safeway. "It is a tremendous waste of time, energy and union member dues."
Northern California union members have a contract separate from that of their southern counterparts and cannot legally strike until their contract expires next September. Both the union and Safeway officials say that the outcome of the current contract negotiations in Southern California will have a significant effect on whether the Northern California workers decide to strike next year.
Workers struck Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11 after talks on a new contract broke down, largely over health insurance issues. Albertsons Inc. and Ralphs, which bargain jointly with Safeway, locked out their employees the next day.
Union members say they are targeting Northern California Safeway stores -- though there are numerous Albertsons in the Bay Area -- because that company has taken the lead in contract negotiations.
Stuart Tannock, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Education who researches labor movements, said similar disagreements over health insurance and pay scales for new workers could arise when the Northern California contract is renegotiated.
"You have the same corporate employers and the same issues," he said.
The picket lines and a radio ad campaign are taking a toll on the targeted stores, union officials say, with 10% to 20% of shoppers choosing to buy groceries elsewhere.
But Safeway contests the numbers. "It is having no appreciable effect. We had a very good Thanksgiving shopping season. Lots of customer traffic, lots of sales," Winslow said.
The union buses the striking workers from Southern California, who stay in Northern California for a week and spend about eight hours a day at store entrances.
Standing in front of a Safeway in San Francisco's Castro district, Caren Propst, an assistant service manager for a Ralphs in Burbank, said she and her fellow union members have been encouraged by shopper reactions.
"Northern California is very pro-union, and people have been responsive," said Propst, 42, of Sun Valley. "The consumers up here actually stop and ask, 'Are you on strike?' And when we tell them our situation, they'll say, 'I'm only using the ATM. I'm only getting prescriptions.' "
For about an hour in front of the store, several customers took leaflets and chatted with union members, but none turned away.
Walking out of the Safeway, Wayne Malek, a country club manager who purchased a few items, said he now tries to do the majority of his grocery shopping elsewhere.
But because he lives in a neighborhood that offers few other options for groceries, Malek, 39, said he sometimes, reluctantly, still shops at Safeway.
"It's so convenient," he said. "I'm sorry to cross the line. I feel horrible."