The looming Thanksgiving holiday wasn't enough to pull hordes of Southern California shoppers across picket lines at Vons and Albertsons stores Sunday, despite the heavy traffic at other supermarkets in their neighborhoods.
Some people, however, said discounted turkeys and impatience with the 6-week-old labor dispute led them to cross the lines for the first time.
"We needed to get a lot of things in one place today," said Roy Zavala of Atwater Village, shopping at a Vons on Los Feliz Boulevard in Glendale.
Zavala said he had not crossed the picket lines at his regular Vons before Sunday, but that he probably was back for good.
Nevertheless, spot checks at stores in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties found that business was heaviest at markets not involved in the contract battle between grocers and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, as well as at Ralphs stores, where pickets were removed Oct. 31.
Throughout the labor dispute, the supermarket chains haven't been commenting on sales or customer traffic for the region. The weekend before Thanksgiving traditionally is among the busiest for supermarkets, but striking workers said it was far from business as usual at Vons and Albertsons in the region.
"The support has been the same. Shoppers are staying away," said Christine Pfeffer, a night manager on strike at a Vons in Los Alamitos. "It looks like what people are buying when they cross the line is the items in the ad and some milk. We haven't really seen many big orders go out."
Workers for Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores went on strike Oct. 11 after contract talks broke down, largely on the issue of health-care contributions. Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc., which bargain jointly with Safeway, locked out their workers the next day. The strike has idled about 70,000 union workers at 859 stores in Southern and Central California.
Negotiators for the three companies and the union returned to the bargaining table with a federal mediator for several hours Saturday, and talks continued Sunday. Neither side would comment on negotiations.
Several shoppers said they have tried to avoid the labor fray by picking up nonperishable items at drug stores such as Longs Drugs and Sav-on, or scouring farmers' markets for produce. But inevitably, they said, they needed the selection or prices of a major chain.
A number of shoppers who crossed picket lines Sunday seemed focused largely on bargains, such as the turkeys at Vons, or 10-pound bags of potatoes at Albertsons for 55 cents.
"Stuff seems lower here," said Burbank resident Mike Napolitano, who was able to afford three turkeys -- including two for his church -- at Albertsons on Verdugo Avenue in Burbank because of its "buy one, get one free" special. With an expected Thanksgiving crowd of 30 family members to feed, Napolitano was happy to find some deals.
This weekend, he was joined by more bargain hunters than he's seen since the strike began: about 15% more shoppers in the Albertsons than last weekend, he guesses.
"For a couple of weeks it was pretty lonely in there," said Napolitano, who continued to shop at the three affected chains even after the picket signs went up. "I don't think it's where it was before the strike, but it's up."
Vacillating between embarrassment and defiance, Northridge resident Laura Smalls said she was drawn to a Vons market in Tarzana not only by the chance to get some errands done quickly while her daughter attended religious classes nearby but also by the budget-boosting power of Butterball gobblers for $8.
"I came for the turkeys," she said. "It's so hard to find things on store shelves now. You've gotta grab what you can find."
Smalls, who was making only her second foray into a strike-bound store since the labor unrest began, said she found walking past the pickets intimidating.
"They made you feel guilty," she said. "They're fighting for what they believe in. But I'm not in a position where I can go pay the higher prices at a luxury store like Gelson's."
At the Gelson's across the street, where a 12-pound turkey went for nearly $19, Tarzana resident Laura Silverman knew that her allegiance to the strikers was costing her money.
"I'm probably paying triple for this turkey, but I don't care," Silverman said. "I absolutely will not cross the picket line, not a chance. The medical insurance issue is too important."
Still, Luke Bastion, strike captain at the Tarzana Vons, knows that as the holidays approach, more time-pressed and bargain-hungry shoppers will cross his line of 30-plus pickets. Starting on Monday, he's increasing his pickets to 60.
"People are more frantic the closer you get to the holiday," Bastion said. "Many have family coming in."
With pickets down, many Vons and Albertsons shoppers are switching to Ralphs -- even though the chain remains locked in a dispute with the union.
"This isn't the way we want to see our business increase," said Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil. "We would much rather have the union use its time and efforts to come up with solutions to the issues that are surrounding the labor dispute, rather than using those efforts to move pickets around or hold rallies or media events."
Union spokeswoman Ellen Andreder said "there's no question that the Ralphs parking lots are very crowded." But she noted that they don't match the crowds at Stater Brothers, Gelson's and other stores not involved in the dispute.
Shoppers realize that "it's not the same Ralphs that people are used to," she said.
A Ralphs store in La Jolla was a little busier than in previous weeks, but lines remained short and the shelves weren't as fully stocked as before the strike.
"I can't seem to find anything," said Felice Friedman, a San Diego resident who shopped at Vons and Ralphs before the strike but now goes to the Ralphs to avoid crossing the pickets. "They used to have two kinds of chopped spinach here; now they don't have any."
Friedman, clutching her grocery list of specialty low-salt items, said she was surprised at how empty the store was Sunday afternoon. "This place would normally be packed the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I wonder where all the shoppers are."
Many of them were next door, shopping at Trader Joe's, where lines were six or seven shoppers deep. A clerk there said the store had been swamped since the strike began.
"It's going to be all hands on deck on Wednesday," said the clerk, who asked that his name not be used.
Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
On February 12, 2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had stated repeatedly that 70,000 workers were involved in the supermarket labor dispute in Central and Southern California, said that the number of people on strike or locked out was actually 59,000. A union spokeswoman, Barbara Maynard, said that 70,000 UFCW members were, in fact, covered by the labor contract with supermarkets that expired last year. But 11,000 of them worked for Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., Arden Group Inc.'s Gelson's and other regional grocery companies and were still on the job. (See: "UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2004, Business C-11)
--- END NOTE ---