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Portraits From the Front Line

For most of the pickets, grocery work is a career with wages and benefits good enough to keep them on the payroll for years.

October 21, 2003|Elizabeth Douglass, Nancy Rivera Brooks and Debora Vrana | Times Staff Writers

Until recently, Richard Meichtry made sure the perishables weren't perishing. Traci Holmes doled out deli meats, and Blanca Marquez bagged milk and eggs.

Now, they are among 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California who have been walking picket lines since Oct. 11.

For most pickets, supermarket work is a career. Grocery stores hire plenty of high school and college students, but the wages and benefits have been good enough to keep people on payrolls for years.

Nationally, 45% of union supermarket workers are 45 or older, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers. And 60% are women, up from 47% in 1980. The seven UFCW locals representing striking and locked-out workers in Southern and Central California don't break out demographic data on their members, but they say the workforce here is more diverse than in the country overall, where nearly 79% of union supermarket workers are white.

"Supermarkets mostly reflect the communities that they're in," said Greg Denier, UFCW communications director. "You go to Vons, and you see mothers and daughters and people who've worked there forever."

Here's a look at some of the people carrying the picket signs:

Produce Worker

Tracey Richardson has tried her hand at many things. There was a four-year stint in the Navy, where she trained as a welder before becoming a military police officer. Then she installed low-voltage lighting, washed dishes and worked as kitchen help in a restaurant.

It wasn't until she interviewed at a Pavilions store in West Hollywood, Richardson said, that she found her niche.

Richardson started as a "courtesy clerk" -- the industry term for grocery bagger -- and quickly moved to the deli, where she ran the cheese operation. Then Richardson set her ambitions on the higher-paying produce department ("because, basically, I'm a vegetarian"), rising to manager for a time until store closings eliminated her job.

"I guess it was for the best because I'm just not a manager-type person," Richardson said with a laugh. She nonetheless is a "picket captain" supervising other strikers during long shifts in front of the store where she works.

"I've always been good with my hands and went after the guy kind of jobs," she said. "It takes skill to get those apples balanced and looking good with no stickers showing -- and then someone pulls from the bottom and there are apples all over the floor."

The current dispute with store ownership has left Richardson questioning the direction her life has taken.

"I'm thinking, did I make the wrong decision spending 12 years in this company? But I didn't go the college route, and the supermarket business seemed like a good idea," said Richardson, who makes the maximum $17.90 an hour for her job category.

Richardson said she sometimes thought about going back to school to explore her interests in photography and art, perhaps pursuing work as an illustrator. The strike has provided new subject matter: "I've been taking lots of pictures of our motley picket crew," she said.

One recent art project involved making lamps out of unusual materials, such as cardboard tubes. "Now everything is a possible lamp for me," she said.

Richardson has found most customers sympathetic, some bringing food and water. But not all support the strike.

"Some people tell us, 'I don't believe in strikes,' " Richardson said, but she's unfazed. "This is what this country is made of, people standing up and trying to better themselves."

Grocery Bagger

A former housekeeper, Blanca Marquez saw her job bagging groceries at Ralphs for $6.95 an hour as a passport to a better life.

"You can be promoted to bakery or a cashier one day," she said. "I didn't want to stay a wrapper for the rest of my life."

A divorced mother of three children who lives with her sister in a Hollywood apartment, Marquez said her pay wasn't enough to raise a family on. But she took the part-time job eight months ago in hopes of eventually getting enough hours to qualify for fully paid benefits.

"I need these benefits for my kids," she said, wiping her face, hot from long hours picketing the Ralphs store she once helped keep in order on La Brea Avenue at 3rd Street in Los Angeles.

Born in Mexico, Marquez, 36, said this was the first strike she had ever been in. She's committed for the long run, with her sister's financial help.

Still, worries about her future are keeping her up at night. Marquez also is concerned about the upcoming holidays if the strike drags on. Her 16-year-old daughter, who attends Hollywood High School, wonders whether she will get any Christmas presents.

"They say, 'Mom, are we going to get gifts for Christmas? Just one, right?" and I tell them, 'I just don't know,' " she said.

Full-Time Clerk

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