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Grocery Shoppers Steer Clear of Picket Lines

October 19, 2003|Leslie Earnest and Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writers

Ray and Lois Jones wanted to be filling their grocery basket at a Vons or Ralphs this weekend. But like thousands of other Southland residents, they did their shopping at one of the smaller chains untouched by the labor dispute with 70,000 union supermarket workers.

"We hate it," Ray Jones, a Costa Mesa retiree, said as he piled groceries in the back of his Oldsmobile at the Stater Bros. Market in Costa Mesa. "It's a good store, but I don't know where anything is."

Jones said he was willing to tolerate the inconvenience for now to avoid crossing picket lines at one of the major chains, which are in a contract dispute with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The picket lines appeared to be having the same effect on other shoppers as the strike and lockout entered its second week.

A spot check of major markets revealed near-empty aisles and parking lots. Meanwhile, UFCW members rallied with other union members and supporters around Southern California.

"It's a tremendous morale booster," Ellen Anreder, a UFCW spokeswoman, said from a rally attended by hundreds in La Habra. "And what's really interesting is that this is happening all over Southern California. I can't get to the rallies quickly enough."

The union struck Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11 after talks on a new contract stalled, largely on the issue of employee contributions to health-care benefits. Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, and Albertsons are bargaining with Safeway and locked out their workers shortly afterward.

A Vons in Montebello seemed practically deserted Saturday morning, with fewer than a half-dozen customers and workers. One check stand was open. A large portion of the deli section was empty, and the produce department had several empty bins.

Outside, workers were happy to see few customers entering the store.

"Our longtime customers are behind us no matter what," said Mignon Betancourt, 29, a cashier who was walking the picket line with her 6-year-old daughter, Tina Marie.

Like other supermarket workers, she attributed public support for the picket lines to the strong bonds that have developed between store clerks and their regular customers.

"It's the company's own fault," Betancourt said. "They wanted us to provide better customer service, and now our customers tell us they won't go back until we go back."

But while the empty parking lots boosted the spirits of the workers, financial worries were also a concern.

Marisol Muratalla, 28, a single mother, said if the strike dragged on she would have difficulty paying the $620-a-month rent for her El Sereno apartment. Though she earns $35 a day in strike pay, she is paying a baby-sitter $25 a day to watch her 2-year-old son.

"As long as we get customer support, hopefully it'll be over soon," said Muratalla, a cashier at the Montebello Vons.

Grocery store representatives said they are keeping stores stocked and continuing to advertise in anticipation of their customers' return.

"As of last night, more people than in previous days were beginning to cross the picket line," said Terry O'Neill, a Ralphs spokesman. "We expect a lot of these people to begin filtering back into our stores."

Susan Mergerdon said she believes the grocery stores when they say they must pass on some of their escalating health-care costs to their employees. On Saturday morning, she dashed into the Vons to use the cash machine but didn't buy any groceries, saying she didn't want to be "disrespectful" to the employees that she had grown to like over the years.

"I'll support them and try to stay outside the line," said Mergerdon, a store manager at a Millers Outpost store who pays $200 a month for her own medical insurance. "But I think they can afford to pay [the medical benefits]. Times are changing."

There were scattered reports of confrontations between pickets and customers. In Laguna Beach, police said they arrested one striker who engaged in a verbal dispute with four teens who shopped at a Pavilions store Friday night, and then followed them home in his car. Sgt. Greg Bartz said the 31-year-old Lake Forest resident at one point kicked the teens' car and, at another, wielded a baseball bat "in a threatening manner."

But congeniality has reigned at many strike sites.

At a Ralphs store in Santa Ana, the store manager brought coffee out to the pickets Saturday morning.

"We all have to go back to work with each other eventually," a picket said. Inside, four or five shoppers roamed the quiet aisles.

At the Alhambra Costco, cashier lines were unusually short on Saturday morning, even though it is unaffected by the strike and lockout. Supervisor Juan Jauregui said he didn't expect to gain a lot of extra business because his store has a $45 membership fee that would deter people from switching just for a short time.

"As soon as the strike is over, they will want to go back to their normal stores," he said.

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