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Supermarket Union Members Begin the Process of Getting Back to Work

Shares of Albertsons, Safeway and Kroger continue to edge up as the strike and lockout come to an end.

March 02, 2004|Melinda Fulmer and James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writers

Major supermarket chains called their union members in Central and Southern California back to work Monday, but it could be several days before the 852 stores affected by the strike and lockout are fully staffed and restocked.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union said members had until Wednesday night to tell the stores where they were on the payroll before Oct. 11 whether they would return. Some could be back on the job as early as today.

The pace of deliveries to Albertsons, Ralphs, Pavilions and Vons stores is not expected to pick up immediately. During the strike and lockout, Teamsters union drivers would not cross picket lines, so managers or replacement workers had to meet trucks far from loading docks and carry goods inside or maneuver the vehicles to the docks themselves.

With pickets gone, Teamsters are free to pull up to the docks, but many drivers remain reluctant to hand off supplies to nonunion employees, said Jim Santangelo, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42. "We're having a problem with that."

UFCW members ratified a new three-year contract over the weekend. The terms will allow the supermarket companies -- Albertsons Inc., Ralphs parent Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc., which owns Pavilions and Vons -- to significantly cut their labor costs, mainly because the pact institutes a two-tier system under which new hires will be paid considerably less than veterans.

The companies posted solid, if unspectacular, gains Monday on the New York Stock Exchange. Cincinnati-based Kroger rose 21 cents to $19.43 a share, Safeway of Pleasanton, Calif., gained 36 cents to $23.23, and Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons was up 36 cents, to $25.10.

The stocks had moved higher in recent days in anticipation of a settlement to the prolonged strike and lockout. Analysts have been cautioning investors that the three chains face potentially disruptive contract negotiations in other parts of the country this year.

Shoppers said they were relieved to find store parking lots free of pickets. In Glendale, Rosemary Baldwin said she had been patronizing Trader Joe's and Gelson's during the strike but was glad to be able to shop at her regular Vons again.

"This is the store that has the cat food I need," she said, pointing to her basket, which was stacked with cans of Friskies. She added that she was struck by how bare the shelves were. Cucumbers had been advertised at two for $1, for example, but there wasn't a single one in the produce section.

All the chains in the strike and lockout were plugging three-day sales on dozens of items. The sales were unrelated to the end of the dispute with the union; they began Sunday morning, before voting on the contract ended that evening. But the stores are expected to unleash a wave of price cutting aimed at regaining their market share.

Awilda Ortiz said she stopped by her regular Albertsons store in Glendale out of curiosity. She wanted to learn when her favorite checkers would be at their registers and when the bargains would begin.

"I have been coming here for many years," she said, adding she was "thrilled" to be back.

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