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Thousands of Grocery Clerks Picket Three Major Chains

October 13, 2003|Melinda Fulmer, E. Scott Reckard and Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writers

Shoppers in Southern California arrived at their local supermarkets Sunday to buy groceries, only to find turmoil as thousands of union workers picketed the region's three largest chains.

The first supermarket strike in Southern California in 25 years started late Saturday night as members of the United Food and Commercial Workers walked off the job at Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores.

By early Sunday, employees at Albertsons Inc. outlets and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs stores, which share the same union contract, had joined the fray after being locked out of their stores in a show of corporate solidarity.

In all, 859 stores and 70,000 workers in Southern California and parts of Central California are affected by the labor unrest. The UFCW estimated that as many as 10,000 workers, from as far north as Mono County and as far south as the Mexican border, walked the picket lines at any one time Sunday.

FOR THE RECORD
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.

"Support our picket lines! Don't shop at this store!" sign-wielding clerks yelled out to customers pulling into the parking lot of a Vons in Eagle Rock.

Picketing workers discouraged many customers from entering the stores, leaving aisles mostly deserted. Those who crossed the picket lines to shop found a few clerks fumbling with the store's cash registers.

"It's very bad in there," said Sondra Alcantara, as she lifted her bags into the back of her SUV at the Eagle Rock Vons. "The guy didn't know what he was doing," she said, adding that he tried to give her change twice.

Workers walking the picket lines at stores around the Southland said they were disappointed that things had come down to a strike, but they insisted that they were prepared to hold out for as long as it took to preserve their health care and pension benefits, which the companies are intent on rolling back.

"I get paid 80 cents above minimum wage," said Gina Guglielmotti, a floral clerk overseeing locked-out workers at a Pasadena Ralphs. "People just don't realize what we're fighting for. They think we're ungrateful. But we want to stop the constant degression of wages."

The supermarkets are proposing a wage freeze and cuts to health and pension benefits for current employees and a substantially lower wage and benefit package for new hires. They say they must win concessions to compete with a host of new rivals, including discount giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is a nonunion operation.

UFCW negotiators are seeking hourly wage increases of 50 cents the first year and 45 cents each of the following two years. Veteran clerks and stockers now earn as much as $17.90 an hour. Meat cutters, the highest-paid union employees, earn up to $19.18 an hour. Baggers earn up to $7.40 an hour.

Under the supermarkets' proposal, employees would have to contribute to monthly health insurance premiums for the first time -- at least $780 a year for family benefits. They also would see large increases in deductibles and co-pays, according to Kathy Finn, the UFCW's director of research and collective bargaining. Health benefits for new workers would be worth less than one-third those of veteran workers' plans, she said.

Talks between the two sides and federal mediator Phyllis S. Cayse broke off late Friday night and then resumed Saturday without the aid of the mediator. Union and supermarket officials said it was a "mutual" decision to try to work things out on their own.

But that search for compromise didn't last long. And as of Sunday night, the union and the companies had not arranged to resume negotiations.

"It's likely to be a few weeks before the parties are ready to get back to the table," said Sandra Calderon, a spokeswoman for Vons. "At the end of the day, both sides remained very far on health care, pension and wages."

To keep its stores fully staffed during the strike, Vons has reduced its hours to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at all Vons and Pavilions stores, including those that normally are open 24 hours.

Though the banks inside the stores are not covered by the contract and will remain open, many of Vons' Starbucks Coffee bars are closed, as are many of its pharmacies. Customers dropping off prescriptions are being asked to visit certain "hub" sites and have the drugs mailed back to them.

Similarly, Albertsons has pared back its operating hours; its stores now are open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It also has reduced its pharmacy hours, spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld said.

Representatives of Ralphs could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters union is throwing its support behind the UFCW. Its drivers have vowed not to cross the picket lines, and on Sunday many drivers parked their trucks outside stores or just down the street.

In some cases, supermarket managers have obtained commercial driver's licenses, which allow them to back up the trucks to loading docks so that they can stock their stores. However, this plan was not proceeding smoothly at all outlets. Some managers had problems handling the huge trucks.

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