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Grocers, Union Still Aren't Talking

Rallies support pickets as an impasse continues over the contract affecting three major supermarket chains.

October 20, 2003|Leslie Earnest and Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writers

The grocery strike moved through its second weekend with many shoppers continuing to shun the major chains and union leaders drumming up support at community rallies.

In Santa Monica on Sunday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to jump-start stalled labor talks between the supermarkets and the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

"It's time for the Terminator to go to the bargaining table," Jackson told about 400 cheering union supporters outside a Vons store in Santa Monica.

"Let me say to the working people of L.A., you are part of a bigger story," Jackson intoned from the back of a flatbed truck, which was parked on a closed-off street alongside the store.

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.

Middle-class jobs are threatened by companies seeking to pare back wages and benefits in the interest of boosting profits, Jackson said in comments before the rally. He added that he had urged Steven A. Burd, the chief executive of Safeway Inc., and other supermarket executives to reopen talks.

Union leaders said they were encouraged by the strong show of support at Jackson's rally and other demonstrations, as well as by the effectiveness of picket lines at 859 Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores in Southern and Central California.

"Shoppers are staying out of the stores, and the community is coming out in support of the workers' struggle," said Barbara Maynard, a spokeswoman for UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles. But Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil said the demonstrations made little difference.

"The pressures our companies are facing won't go away simply by these community leaders weighing in on the labor dispute," he said. "The only thing that will change the situation would be the union deciding to come back to the bargaining table and work with us toward a resolution of the issues. Until the union decides to do that, the labor dispute is going to continue."

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony called on both sides to resume talking. "I urge all parties to return to the bargaining table at once and to resume negotiations until a satisfactory agreement is reached," Mahony said in a statement released Saturday.

The union struck Safeway's Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11 after talks on a new contract broke down, largely on the issue of employee contributions to health-care plans. Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, and Albertsons Inc. locked out their workers shortly thereafter in a show of corporate solidarity.

The companies say they are facing cutthroat competition from nonunion discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and that employees need to begin making contributions toward health insurance. Workers say they have been loyal to their companies for many years -- even though in many cases they are given only part-time hours -- because their health benefits are fully paid. Wages for supermarket clerks top out at $17.90 an hour. Baggers make as much as $7.40 an hour.

Shoppers seeking to avoid the picket lines continued to crowd markets untouched by the labor trouble Sunday.

At a Stater Bros. supermarket in Long Beach, Joanie Palazzolo counted herself lucky to find a parking space. Then she scored a rare shopping cart from a departing customer. But when Palazzolo entered the store, her heart dropped.

Shoppers 20 deep jammed the aisles from the cash registers to the refrigerated shelves at the opposite end of the store. Clerks said it was busier than the day before Thanksgiving. Palazzolo said it was too much.

"I won't cross the picket line, but I am also not going to wait in line for 30 to 40 minutes," Palazzolo said as she backed up her sedan, yielding her precious parking space to another shopper. "I can purchase almost everything I need at Costco."

Others said they would bear the long lines.

"We will do this for at least a month, maybe longer," said Matt Ruiz of Seal Beach, as he stood 14 carts back in line at the Stater Bros. "The only thing that would cause us to change would be if we continue to hear stories about shoppers being abused by the strikers when they cross picket lines."

About three miles across town, at the Ralphs on Seal Beach Boulevard closer to Ruiz's home, fewer than a dozen shoppers were in the entire store despite advertised bargains such as a free dozen eggs and free 2-liter bottles of soda with a $15 purchase.

That Ralphs, one of the chain's newer stores, typically does $80,000 to $90,000 in business on a typical Sunday, its busiest day of the week, said Cindy Regan, the store's floral manager, as she walked the picket line out front.

Based on the volume of shoppers going through the doors on Sunday, she figured the store was doing about 20% of its normal business.

And those who were shopping weren't buying much.

Lucy Hunt of Rossmoor dashed in for special brands of laundry detergent and soy milk that she couldn't find at the Target next door, or at the unaffected Wild Oats and Trader Joe's stores in Long Beach.

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