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Stores' Personal Touch Fortifies Picket Lines

October 15, 2003|Ronald D. White and Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writers

As a small-business owner, Ata Hassani tends to side with the supermarkets locked in a labor dispute with their workers. He knows what it's like to deal with rising health insurance costs, the central issue in the clash.

But defy the pickets at his local Albertsons in Calabasas? Not a chance.

"They have treated my wife and me like family," Hassani, a 45-year-old financial planner, said of the grocery workers. "I sympathize with the employers, but I won't cross this line."

Shoppers, store clerks and psychologists alike say personal relationships are why many customers are doing everything they can to avoid breaching picket lines -- at least at stores where they know the workers.

It's tough to "cross a picket line and cross eyes with someone you know," said Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor at Cal State Los Angeles. "There are certain venues where people go regularly and become faithful shoppers. They get to know the personnel and that does produce that social bond that can create guilt."

Those bonds can be good for business, and supermarkets encourage them.

Several years ago, the Vons chain owned by Safeway Inc. launched a "Superior Service" program, requiring checkers and baggers to make eye contact with customers and thank them by their last names, which are printed on the receipts of Vons Club Card customers. Employees were rated by secret shoppers sent to stores by the chain, and those earning the top score of 10 received bonuses.

The program "brought us closer to our customers," said Juan Frias, a 27-year Vons employee in La Crescenta. But for the company, "it's really backfiring on them now."

On Tuesday morning, Tracy Fisher was walking the picket line at the Albertsons in Tujunga. A supervisor in the store's deli, Fisher said most of her regular customers, as well as her friends from neighboring La Crescenta, where she lives, would not cross the line.

"We're like our own family up here; we pride ourselves on that," said Fisher, 37, who leads two Girl Scout troops. As she talked, passing motorists occasionally honked and waved their support.

There have been exceptions. Fisher said one of her friends and customers, who is on a first-name basis with store workers, crossed the picket line on a day when Fisher wasn't there. Word quickly got back to other friends and Girl Scout mothers.

"I heard all about it the next day," Fisher said. "We have after-school treats on Friday, and it will be talked about. This is a small town; everybody talks about everything."

Fisher said she was more hurt than angry, adding that she tries to be respectful either way.

"We all have to go home after this -- that store is our home," Fisher said. "You can be upset with them, but you can't stay mad at them. They're our bread and butter."

Another of Fisher's friends, Sharon Brady, said she didn't support unions in general. The United Food and Commercial Workers union struck Vons late Saturday after failing to reach a contract agreement, triggering an employer lockout the next day by Kroger Co.'s Ralphs chain and Albertsons Inc.

Brady doesn't agree with the union's tactics. But as a friend of Fisher and other supermarket employees, she said she would honor supermarket picket lines. Brady stocked up on groceries in advance of the strike and will go to stores not involved in the dispute until it is settled, "no matter how long it goes on," she said.

Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley, said the supermarket workers had an advantage in the battle for public opinion.

"For many people, this is not simply a conflict between a giant chain and a large union, but instead, it's your neighbor trying to fight something, and you know what that fight is about," Shaiken said.

At the Tujunga Albertsons, some people who did cross the picket line did so apologetically.

Veronika Ragauskas, a pharmacy technician, sought to intercept a woman steering her minivan toward the store.

"Terry, stop!" Ragauskas yelled. She rushed to the woman's car window, hoping to persuade her longtime customer to shop elsewhere.

The woman explained that she needed to refill her prescription, and Ragauskas nodded sympathetically.

"I even know what medication she's taking, and she needs it," Ragauskas told fellow strikers. "I can't be upset."

The strike and lockout were only in their third full day Tuesday, and Fischoff of Cal State Los Angeles and other experts cautioned that the dynamic between shoppers and strikers could change if the dispute was not settled soon.

"As time goes on, people will return to the stores even if there are a few pickets outside," said Scott Witlin, a labor attorney and partner in the Los Angeles office of Proskauer Rose.

At some point, Witlin said, people will find it too inconvenient to search for alternatives to their neighborhood supermarkets, and "the passion of the strikers will wane."

Fisher is counting on her friends to stay on her side.

"We were told by the stores that people will get sick of it if it lasts for a while, but we're hoping that they stick with us," she said. "Family and friends, people who know my dad or grandparents or who know me through Scouts, they'll stay with it. They know what's really going on because we talk about it."

Times staff writer Nancy Cleeland contributed to this report.

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