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Divide-and-Conquer Strategy Pressed by Market Strike Unions

Times Labor Writer

The unions involved in a bitter labor dispute with Southern California supermarkets have decided to concentrate their picketing on Vons stores in what they hope will be a divide-and-conquer strategy.

While sporadic picketing at some Safeway stores will continue, union sources said their goal is to hurt Vons’ business enough so that Vons will sign an interim contract or start pressuring the other six chains involved in the strike-lockout to settle quickly.

Five chains--Alpha Beta, Albertson’s, Hughes, Lucky and Ralphs--have not been picketed at their stores since the labor dispute started 18 days ago. Warehouses belonging to all seven chains are being picketed, however.

On Thursday, as the unions were picketing all 164 Vons stores from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara and 70 of Safeway’s 200 Southland stores, the Teamsters Union and the Food Employers Council held another secret negotiating session. An informed source at the talks said that progress was being made but added that a settlement was “some days” away.

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Bargaining Unit

Officials of both the Teamsters Union, which represents 12,000 drivers, warehouse personnel and office employees, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which bargains for 10,000 meat cutters and meat wrappers, assert that their picketing strategy is working.

“Vons has lost a lot of business,” said Whitey Ulrich, president of Meat Cutters Local 551 based in Artesia.

However, a spokesman for the Food Employers Council, the organization that represents the supermarket chains, said the strategy is not working.

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A Vons spokesman asserted that the strategy has not succeeded, even though the chain’s business is off 5% to 10% from the same period a year ago.

“We’re as solidly behind the Food Employers (Council) negotiating posture as we were when the negotiations started before the strike,” said Dan Granger, Vons vice president for marketing.

Supporters Puzzled

Some union supporters said they are puzzled at why the unions have not established token picketing at all seven chains. After the unions struck Vons on Nov. 5, the others locked out members of the two unions.

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A former official of a large industrial union, who requested anonymity, said, “I went by a Hughes (market) the other day and there were no pickets there. I can’t understand why the unions wouldn’t have at least one picket at a store handing out leaflets explaining what the strike is about.”

“You can’t build public awareness without more pickets,” said another strike supporter.

An official of the Food and Commercial Workers gave another explanation of why the picketing has been limited. He noted that the union also represents 60,000 clerks at Southern California supermarkets.

“It’s always desirable to keep as many people working as possible,” he said.

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If more chains were being picketed, he continued, that would mean that clerks at all those chains would be faced with the decision of whether to cross a picket line.

Under the clerks’ contract, they can cross a picket line without being penalized by the union or they can honor a picket line without being fired. However, under federal labor law, people honoring picket lines can be permanently replaced during a strike.

Number of Clerks

Asked if limiting the picketing was a way to avoid forcing a number of clerks to make a decision about crossing a picket line, the source said, “Yes.”

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Vons has said that only 5% of its clerks are honoring picket lines. Food and Commercial Workers officials, however, say a third to half of the clerks at Vons have declined to cross the lines. To buttress the claim, they said hundreds of Vons clerks have filed for financial assistance to make up for lost wages.

The supermarket chain took note of the unions’ divide-and-conquer strategy in a full-page ad appearing today in The Times and in seven other Southern California newspapers.

The ad, titled, “Why Vons?” says, “Vons is the Number 1 supermarket chain in Southern California.”

The ad asserts, “Because of our leadership position, the unions feel that if we can be broken, the industry can be broken. And the unions hope that by consolidating their efforts, the strike will be more effective.”

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Secret Session

Meanwhile, the Teamsters and the Food Employers Council held a third secret negotiating session this week. Federal mediator Frank Allen confirmed Thursday that the two sides met from 10 a.m. to midnight Wednesday. He declined to comment further.

In a related development, investigators from federal and local law enforcement agencies went to an Alpha Beta store in Claremont Wednesday morning after a woman poured Thiophene--a nontoxic chemical used to add odor to natural gas--on food in two separate aisles in the store.

Two-hundred people were evacuated from the store, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A child and two adults were taken to Pomona Valley Community Hospital after complaining of respiratory problems. The child and one of the adults were released a short time later, but the second adult was kept under observation, a deputy reported.

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The Covina Police Department said tests on milk and yogurt from an Alpha Beta store that were suspected to have been contaminated in a strike-related incident proved negative. Suspicions arose because a 3-year-old boy who had consumed the products became ill on Tuesday.


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