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Shelving the Past

Their lives forever changed, four grocery workers try to move on a year after the strike and lockout

February 27, 2005|Ronald D. White and Debora Vrana | Times Staff Writers

A year ago this weekend, the California grocery strike and lockout -- the longest labor standoff in U.S. supermarket history -- came to an end.

For 4 1/2 half months, 59,000 workers were idled at 852 grocery stores from the Mexico border to Mammoth Lakes. While picketers walked the lines, managers and hastily hired replacement workers struggled to keep the stores open. Loyal customers agonized over where to shop.

The dispute was a financial calamity for the grocery chains. Safeway Inc., owner of Vons and Pavilions, Kroger Co., owner of Ralphs, and Albertsons Inc. lost an estimated $1.5 billion in sales to rival stores. The damage continues to show up in quarterly profit reports, although the companies say their decision to endure the pain of the strike and lockout will pay off down the road by making them more competitive.

Most workers didn't fare any better than their employers. Many, unable to get by on their meager strike pay from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, took part-time jobs or left the grocery business altogether. And the payoff for months of deprivation and uncertainty was dubious: a new contract putting new hires on a second-tier wage scale that ultimately pays them significantly less than veteran workers.

The economic fallout paled when compared with the effects of the crippling work stoppage that hit Southern California ports in 2002, said UCLA labor expert Kent Wong.

But "unless you were a dockworker in San Pedro or Long Beach, it didn't have much impact on your life," he noted. "With the supermarkets, the impact was felt much more deeply by residents throughout the Southland."

And it still reverberates for thousands of people. Here are some of their stories:

The Rookie

At the age of 21, Emery Castaneda has a resume that reads like a road map of America's minimum-wage economy.

Since graduating from Chaffey High School in Ontario in 2001, Castaneda has held a succession of unfulfilling, low-paying jobs. She has worked as a waitress at a 1950s-themed restaurant and as a telemarketer for a cemetery, calling people during the dinner hour to ask if they needed a burial plot. She also sold clothes in an apparel shop in El Monte, took another stab at waiting tables -- Italian this time -- and clerked in a Latino supermarket in the San Gabriel Valley.

"The last thing I was willing to do was to get stuck in a low-paying, dead-end job," she said. "I wanted something that would allow me to help out my family."

Then, in April, she landed a position at an Albertsons in El Monte. A cousin had touted the job as an excellent opportunity, believing that working for one of the big supermarket chains was a smart career move for someone without a college degree.

That has changed since the strike and lockout, some contend. Under the new, two-tier wage scale at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons stores, the top rung of the pay ladder is lower and it takes longer to get there. In addition, new hires have to wait one year for company-funded health coverage -- a benefit that used to come after five months. That posed a problem for Castaneda, who suffers from chronic anemia.

Still, the job was promising at first. She was promoted to supervising and organizing the store's liquor section after three months. Putting in as many as 37 hours a week, she was able to pass on some of her earnings to her family. (Castaneda is the second of eight children. Her father, Jose Luis Navarrette, owns a landscaping business. Her mother works the cash register at an Arco gas station in Ontario.)

In October, she said, her hours were reduced sharply. And by then, she was being dinged $10 a paycheck in union dues. At $7.75 an hour, she was taking home $136 a week -- not enough to make it on her own.

"It's hard," she said. "People think that because you work at Albertsons you make good money. Not anymore. You can't live on your own in Los Angeles for $130 to $140 a week."

Castaneda, who now lives with the cousin who persuaded her to apply at Albertsons in the first place, wants to attend community college in September. Her goal is to obtain the training she needs to get a job as a social worker specializing in working with troubled children.

"My co-workers, the ones who have been there for a long time, are always saying that they hope I decide to go back to school," she said. "I can get a job that I'm going to look forward to every day. It will keep me on my toes. I can try to make a child's life better."

The Veteran

Jeannie McGrew was working as a cashier at a Safeway store in Santa Monica back in 1975 when she got a look at the good life.

McGrew, 24 at the time and single, noticed that her co-workers were mostly veterans with 20 years or more with the company. Many had earned enough to buy homes and were planning to send their kids to college.

"I never thought about changing jobs after that," McGrew recalled. "I never looked for another job."

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