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Allies Rally Behind Grocery Union

Supermarket chains say operations are steadily improving as replacement workers learn the ropes

October 16, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Southern California grocers and their striking employees dug in for the long haul Wednesday, as stores said they were starting to run smoothly and unions representing everyone from actors to janitors pledged to stock food banks and crank up a campaign to broaden public support.

"We intend to be more aggressive," Miguel Contreras, the top official at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said at a strategy session with dozens of union and community leaders Wednesday. "If they think this is just about a few pickets in front of the stores, they've got another thing coming."

As the regionwide walkout stretched into its fourth full day, the supermarket chains said their makeshift operations were showing steady improvement as managers and temporary workers adjusted to their new roles.

Vons has hired 17,800 temporary workers in the last few days, to replace a usual workforce of 23,000, said spokeswoman Sandra Calderon. That has allowed the stores to expand hours and open more pharmacies since the strike's first days, she said.

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.

"It's going a lot smoother than we'd anticipated," Calderon said.

Albertsons spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld agreed: "Our stores are open and there's product on the shelves."

Vons and Pavilions stores owned by Safeway Inc. were the chief target of the strike announced late Saturday by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc. stores are covered by the same labor contract, and those companies quickly locked out their employees in a show of solidarity.

In all, 70,000 workers in 859 stores, from the Mexican border to Mammoth Lakes, are affected.

Both sides view the next few days as crucial.

Shoppers may find their sympathy for the strikers being tested as supplies in cupboards and refrigerators dwindle. And pickets may find their enthusiasm waning as the strike drags on.

Friday will be the first payday without a check for Vons workers, Calderon noted.

"That's when the reality sinks in," she said. "It's not spring break anymore."

On Wednesday, union leaders representing actors, longshore workers, janitors, teachers, hotel housekeepers and others pledged to bolster the strikers' resolve with a series of rallies, help on picket lines and mass demonstrations.

"We're facing negotiations on the very same issue," said John P. Connolly, national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, one of at least 50 union leaders at the strategy session at the county labor federation offices near downtown Los Angeles.

"One way to make sure that we are successful is to support the UFCW in their fight now," he said.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents about 8,000 supermarket warehouse workers and drivers, will soon consider expanding its involvement, said Jim Santangelo, who directs the union's regional association, Joint Council 42.

Currently, drivers are refusing to drive past picket lines at stores, he said. The council is now considering sanctioning a larger picket, he said, which would essentially halt work at the grocers' large distribution centers and sideline all 8,000 Teamsters.

Santangelo said some members already were pushing to widen the job action to warehouses, but he indicated that such action was premature.

"This strike is still pretty young," he said. "We don't want to shoot every bullet right away, or we won't have any ammunition left."

Striking employees said they would welcome broader job action.

"It gets pretty lonely out there, especially in the middle of the night," said Hector Bobadilla, a produce manager at a Ralphs store at 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. "Sometimes you feel sad, like nobody cares."

With no negotiations scheduled and no mediator on the scene, there are no signs that the strike will end anytime soon. Indeed, both union and supermarket representatives speak of the time frame in terms of weeks, not days. Each side says it is waiting for the other to make the next move.

"We're waiting for some sort of meaningful proposal," Calderon said. "They need to bring us something, but they are digging in their heels. At this point, what I'm hearing from our labor folks is that they're waiting for the unions to make the call."

Union spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said it wouldn't happen. "That's ridiculous," she said. "Unless there's a new offer on the table, there's nothing to talk about."

The markets are proposing cuts in health and pension benefits, a wage freeze, a substantially lower wage and benefit package for new hires and the right to open nonunion stores.

Employees, many of whom work part time and earn less than $25,000 per year, said they couldn't afford steep health-care deductibles and co-payments, which union leaders said would be required under the employer proposal.

The supermarkets, however, said their plan was generous, given the competition they are facing from lower-cost grocers.

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