The grocery workers' union withdrew pickets from all 300 Ralphs stores in the California supermarket labor dispute Friday, focusing pressure on the Vons and Albertsons chains.
United Food and Commercial Workers union officials said they wanted to give frustrated customers the option of shopping at one of the three chains in the contract battle. The strike moves into its fourth week today, and strong public support for the workers has started to show signs of erosion.
"What we're doing here is rewarding consumers who have respected our picket lines," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles. He added that the union's main beef has always been with Vons parent Safeway Inc. and its chairman, Steven A. Burd, whom Icaza has accused of provoking the strike.
The three supermarket chains characterized the move as an ill-fated attempt to divide them, and said it reflected weakening support for the union.
"They are having difficulty manning the picket lines," said Brian Dowling, a spokesman for Safeway, which also owns Pavilions. "This is a consolidation on their part."
Industry analysts said the union's tactic at Ralphs was unlikely to diminish the unified front the chains have put up. Meanwhile, the chains and the union were being asked by the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who was in California on Friday, to restart negotiations.
After pickets departed at noon, Ralphs parking lots sprang back to life.
"I was out of everything," said Koleen Bender, 43, of Santa Ana, who hurried to her neighborhood Ralphs when she heard the news. She left with $120 in groceries.
At a Ralphs in Venice, five checkout lines were open and busy with customers. Ed O'Carroll, 54, who had done most of his shopping at small neighborhood markets for the last three weeks, said the store clearly was caught off-guard.
"You should see it in there," he said. "It's ugly."
The union launched the strike Oct. 11 against Vons and Pavilions after talks on a new contract broke down, chiefly over health-care benefits.
Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, and Albertsons Inc. bargain jointly with Safeway and locked out their union workers the next day. That sent pickets to 859 markets in Southern and Central California and sidelined 70,000 workers.
Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil said the chain had no intention of ending its lockout and would continue to rely on temporary workers and Kroger employees from out of town.
Pickets quitting their lines at Ralphs stores "does not change the fact that the labor dispute continues," he said.
"We are united with Vons and Albertsons through this labor dispute as long as the union may decide to continue it," O'Neil said.
Burd, Safeway's chairman, recently told supermarket industry analysts that the three chains had agreed to share the financial burden of the strike, though he did not provide details.
Representatives of the companies refused Friday to discuss the possibility that Ralphs might share with Albertsons and Safeway any windfall from being the only one of the chains without pickets.
The UFCW threatened to take the California strike national and set up pickets at Safeway stores across the country. Icaza noted that by pulling pickets at Ralphs, the union has 18,000 locked-out members who could be deployed to other stores in Southern California or to other parts of the country.
The locked-out workers are eligible for strike pay -- about $200 to $300 a week -- only if they are on a picket line. Cashiers normally earn a top wage of $17.90 an hour, with baggers earning a top hourly scale of $7.40 and meat cutters making as much as $18.19.
The markets have asked for cuts in health and pension benefits, a lower wage and benefit package for new hires and the ability to outsource many union jobs. They argue that they must reduce labor costs to compete with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which plans to enter the California grocery market next year.
For their part, union officials have said they were willing to accept some concessions but have called the markets' demands excessive and have blamed mismanagement at the chains, particularly at Safeway, for poor financial performace.
As part of its new strategy to garner national support, the UFCW took out full-page ads in major newspapers from Seattle to Washington, D.C. One in the Wall Street Journal called for Burd's ouster.
No negotiations have been held since contract talks broke off Oct. 11. Peter Hurtgen, the director of the Labor Department's mediation service, is in California in an effort to call parties back to the table, so far without success, John Arnold, a spokesman for the agency, said Friday.
Hurtgen's presence "is a sign of the importance that the agency is setting on these negotiations in Southern California," Arnold said. "These are important issues, and it's a very significant work stoppage in terms of the effect it's having."
Federal mediators were instrumental in ending a three-week grocery strike in St. Louis, where they helped negotiate a contract that was overwhelmingly ratified by UFCW members Friday. Union officials noted that the St. Louis strike involved different, smaller chains and said that those companies were more willing to compromise.
Union officials have said that before the action Friday, business was down in targeted stores by 75%. In a report issued this week, Merrill Lynch analyst Mark Husson estimated the three chains combined were losing $131 million a week in sales.
Strike benefits, meanwhile, are costing the national UFCW and its locals in Southern and Central California an estimated $10 million a week.
Some business analysts said the union's latest gambit was interesting from a public relations perspective but would have little effect on the resolve of the chains.
"The math of this is, they could strike for a very long time -- hundreds of days -- before the return on this investment from the companies goes down," said Mia Kirchgaessner of Bernstein, a research firm. "This contract is so expensive, any concessions they get ... more than makes up for" the cost of the strike to the supermarkets.
New York retail analyst Burt Flickinger III disagreed. He said that by targeting Safeway and spreading pickets across the country, the union was being "strategically savvy." Going national, he said, would "take this from a modest fight in the front yard to a full-scale brass-knuckle alley fight."
If nothing else, the union's move Friday could change the dynamic and bring new energy to the strike, which is the first staged by these union locals in 25 years.
"They're clearly at an impasse," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. "The public support is still strong overall, business is clearly still down, but nothing is moving. The whole question is how do you break this impasse? How do you focus the pressure? How do you get the parties back to the table? The union's assessment is that it's Safeway and Vons' management that is the problem. This moves the dispute in that direction."