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Business Less Than Usual This Holiday

Thanksgiving isn't sending the customary droves to stores involved in the labor dispute.

November 24, 2003|Jon Healey, Karen Robinson-Jacobs and Alex Pham | Times Staff Writers

The looming Thanksgiving holiday wasn't enough to pull hordes of Southern California shoppers across picket lines at Vons and Albertsons stores Sunday, despite the heavy traffic at other supermarkets in their neighborhoods.

Some people, however, said discounted turkeys and impatience with the 6-week-old labor dispute led them to cross the lines for the first time.

"We needed to get a lot of things in one place today," said Roy Zavala of Atwater Village, shopping at a Vons on Los Feliz Boulevard in Glendale.

Zavala said he had not crossed the picket lines at his regular Vons before Sunday, but that he probably was back for good.

Los Angeles Times Saturday December 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Supermarket strike -- In its coverage of the supermarket strike and lockout that began Oct. 11, The Times has said repeatedly that the labor dispute affected 859 union grocery stores in Southern and Central California. In fact, 852 stores are affected.

Nevertheless, spot checks at stores in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties found that business was heaviest at markets not involved in the contract battle between grocers and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, as well as at Ralphs stores, where pickets were removed Oct. 31.

Throughout the labor dispute, the supermarket chains haven't been commenting on sales or customer traffic for the region. The weekend before Thanksgiving traditionally is among the busiest for supermarkets, but striking workers said it was far from business as usual at Vons and Albertsons in the region.

"The support has been the same. Shoppers are staying away," said Christine Pfeffer, a night manager on strike at a Vons in Los Alamitos. "It looks like what people are buying when they cross the line is the items in the ad and some milk. We haven't really seen many big orders go out."

Workers for Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores went on strike Oct. 11 after contract talks broke down, largely on the issue of health-care contributions. Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc., which bargain jointly with Safeway, locked out their workers the next day. The strike has idled about 70,000 union workers at 859 stores in Southern and Central California.

Negotiators for the three companies and the union returned to the bargaining table with a federal mediator for several hours Saturday, and talks continued Sunday. Neither side would comment on negotiations.

Several shoppers said they have tried to avoid the labor fray by picking up nonperishable items at drug stores such as Longs Drugs and Sav-on, or scouring farmers' markets for produce. But inevitably, they said, they needed the selection or prices of a major chain.

A number of shoppers who crossed picket lines Sunday seemed focused largely on bargains, such as the turkeys at Vons, or 10-pound bags of potatoes at Albertsons for 55 cents.

"Stuff seems lower here," said Burbank resident Mike Napolitano, who was able to afford three turkeys -- including two for his church -- at Albertsons on Verdugo Avenue in Burbank because of its "buy one, get one free" special. With an expected Thanksgiving crowd of 30 family members to feed, Napolitano was happy to find some deals.

This weekend, he was joined by more bargain hunters than he's seen since the strike began: about 15% more shoppers in the Albertsons than last weekend, he guesses.

"For a couple of weeks it was pretty lonely in there," said Napolitano, who continued to shop at the three affected chains even after the picket signs went up. "I don't think it's where it was before the strike, but it's up."

Vacillating between embarrassment and defiance, Northridge resident Laura Smalls said she was drawn to a Vons market in Tarzana not only by the chance to get some errands done quickly while her daughter attended religious classes nearby but also by the budget-boosting power of Butterball gobblers for $8.

"I came for the turkeys," she said. "It's so hard to find things on store shelves now. You've gotta grab what you can find."

Smalls, who was making only her second foray into a strike-bound store since the labor unrest began, said she found walking past the pickets intimidating.

"They made you feel guilty," she said. "They're fighting for what they believe in. But I'm not in a position where I can go pay the higher prices at a luxury store like Gelson's."

At the Gelson's across the street, where a 12-pound turkey went for nearly $19, Tarzana resident Laura Silverman knew that her allegiance to the strikers was costing her money.

"I'm probably paying triple for this turkey, but I don't care," Silverman said. "I absolutely will not cross the picket line, not a chance. The medical insurance issue is too important."

Still, Luke Bastion, strike captain at the Tarzana Vons, knows that as the holidays approach, more time-pressed and bargain-hungry shoppers will cross his line of 30-plus pickets. Starting on Monday, he's increasing his pickets to 60.

"People are more frantic the closer you get to the holiday," Bastion said. "Many have family coming in."

With pickets down, many Vons and Albertsons shoppers are switching to Ralphs -- even though the chain remains locked in a dispute with the union.

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