Market Strike Plays Well in Union Town : Workers on Picket Lines Get Support From Many San Pedro Shoppers

Times Staff Writer

Armed with a placard and a handful of flyers, striking supermarket worker Santa Elliott suffered this week's brisk weather at a Vons picket line in San Pedro to support her union's continuing labor dispute with Southern California grocery stores.

Many shoppers crossed Elliott's picket line. But, during the nine days that the supermarket strike has persisted, many San Pedro residents have not.

"Keep up the good work," shouted passer-by Ron Jerrells, 38, a San Pedro longshoreman and strike sympathizer, to the pickets at the 25th Street store. "It'll be OK."

"Where is it OK to shop?" Patsy Rolph, 57, asked Elliott's group of pickets from the window of her gold-colored sports car. Rolph, a nurse who lives in San Pedro, explained, "I looked at the issues and decided to support them."

Vons is the prime target of the strike by Southern California's 10,000 meat cutters and meat wrappers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, and 12,000 supermarket drivers, office employees and warehouse personnel represented by the Teamsters Union.

The strike began Nov. 5 when Teamsters and meat cutters walked off the job at 164 Southern California Vons stores. In response, six other chains--Albertson's, Alpha Beta, Hughes, Lucky, Ralphs and Safeway--locked out employees who were members of the striking unions, enlarging the labor dispute to include nearly 1,000 stores.

While it is difficult to gauge how much the public has supported the regional supermarket strike, it appears to playing fairly well in San Pedro, a community with a long-established union consciousness that many labor officials call one of the remaining union strongholds in Los Angeles County.

Indeed, several managers of San Pedro's family-owned markets, and other stores not targeted by the strike reported business gains of 20% to 40% during the first week of the strike, compared to the week before. All attributed their sales increases--which came the second week of the month, a time when many say their revenues usually lag behind the paycheck-rich first week--to the labor dispute, which brought union-sympathizing shoppers to stores that were not involved in or targeted by the strike.

At the same time, pickets said they have helped turn away about 50% of the customers that would have shopped at San Pedro's two Vons stores, a claim that Vons' officials call ridiculous.

Chainwide, Vons' sales are down 5% from this time last year, officials said. "Those stores (in San Pedro) are down more than the chain is down," said Dan Granger, vice president of marketing for Vons. He said that he did not have statistics yet on the sales drop, but that it is not near 50%. Granger added that business is beginning to pick up again at the San Pedro stores.

Officials from San Pedro-area maritime unions, not involved in the labor dispute, maintain that the community's strongest showing of support for the strike is yet to come.

The harbor area's collection of maritime unions began preparing Wednesday for a public rally or similar action to demonstrate their solidarity with the supermarket workers. That action, to be announced later this week, is being planned by representatives of the 18 mostly maritime-related unions that make up the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor Labor Coalition.

"San Pedro is the only place we have outside unions doing something like that," said D. Whitey Ulrich, president of Local 551 of the meat-cutters union.

"It's a pretty well-known thing that San Pedro has a union consciousness," said Becki Keisling, manager of the San Pedro Ralphs store, which strikers say drew much of the business that would have gone to Vons. "I think people are honoring the picket lines all over, but I think they're honoring the picket lines more here."

Keisling said she could not estimate how much business has increased at Ralphs, although she said the change was not dramatic.

However, Andrea Nisbet, an owner of San Pedro's three McCowan's food stores, said that the strike has brought her supermarkets 20% more business. McCowan's, located in San Pedro since 1955, signed an interim agreement with the meat-cutters union, essentially saying that it would abide by whatever contract is eventually negotiated. Nisbet said the store does not employ Teamsters workers.

A Union Town

"We've seen people here that we haven't seen in years," Nisbet said. "This is a union town, and people aren't about to cross picket lines."

San Pedro has earned a reputation as a union town primarily for its concentration of laborers from harbor industries, many of which are unionized. The harbor area, including Wilmington and San Pedro, is home to about 15 union halls, including those for longshoremen, cannery workers, truck drivers, machinists and shipbuilders.

The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union Local 13, for example, says that about 45% of the 4,000 workers it represents live in San Pedro.

And while many say that in recent years the union presence in San Pedro has waned somewhat--partly in tandem with the labor movement's decline nationally and partly with the community's influx of young professionals--some also add that the town's union spirit has risen for the supermarket strike.

Strike Talk Common

"A lot of people are talking about the strike, even my steady customers," said Dino Cullo, owner of Dino's Italian Meats and Deli, who said his business, on Western Avenue, has been booming since the strike began, up 40% from the week before.

"You can see the difference here," said Dave Montoya, 38, a meat cutter on the 25th Street Vons picket line, who said he had also picketed in Torrance and Rolling Hills. "Basically in San Pedro, the support is strong. I've never seen Ralphs that busy, but it was an alternative to shopping at a store that has a picket line. . . . I would say this is the most union-oriented area in the strike."

A meat cutter who was manning the picket line Monday night at the Hermosa Beach Vons supermarket agreed. "This doesn't even compare to a place like San Pedro," he said. "Some people here don't even know what a union is and most of them don't care either way. . . . San Pedro is a union town, simply because of the docks. The lady I married is from San Pedro and her father and her uncle are in unions, and her brother is joining one."

Larry Crowley, manning the Hermosa Beach picket line on Tuesday, observed: "A couple of stewardesses came up and said they got nailed in their last contract. . . . They went to shop somewhere else. That's about it."

Meanwhile, at the San Pedro picket line on 25th Street, Elliott, 44, said, "I don't know how our picket line compares to other areas, but a customer came up and told me that she just came from Huntington Beach and 'you sure are having a better response than they are there.' "

If San Pedro strike efforts have turned more shoppers away, pickets also say they have reaped a number of small kindnesses.

Striking workers say that some San Pedro residents have driven up to picket lines to express their support. Others have brought coffee or hot chocolate; a local deli provided a tray of hot tea. One striking worker said her San Pedro beautician offered to style and cut her hair free until the strike is settled.

"Some of the longshoremen have come out here and walked with us," added Teresa Fernandez, a meat wrapper who picketed with her two children. "They tell their relatives and their fellow longshoremen, 'Don't shop there.' They really help."

David Arian, president of the local longshoremen's union, said the group will make a stronger effort later this week and as the strike continues.

"We're going to be making it clear to all people in San Pedro that they should be supporting this," he said. Arian said that the harbor area's coalition of labor groups, of which his union is a member, is considering several actions, including staging a mass demonstration, advertising in newspapers, distributing flyers door-to-door and enlisting support from community groups and politicians.

"If you get the unions together, you can get the support of 40% to 50% of San Pedro," Arian asserted.

Not All Agree

In fact, not all shoppers interviewed by The Times in parking lots of several San Pedro stores agreed on the the strike.

"I wouldn't cross the picket line," said Salvador Pallares, 57, a shopper at Lucky and a San Pedro resident. "If there was a picket line here, I wouldn't go in. . . . A lot of people I know tell me they won't go to the (stores) with the picket lines."

But Florence Caropino, 54, a native of San Pedro, said, "You feel guilty going in (Vons); after all (the pickets) are out there for a reason. But I figure I can't solve all the problems of the world. There are so many causes."

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