A Tough Time for Grocery Workers and Their Families

Times Staff Writer

Not long ago, Silvio and Michelle Pietrantonio took $10,000 in equity out of their Burbank home to remodel their kitchen. With both idled by the supermarket strike, the money is instead going to monthly bills.

At least they can pay them. Gail and Daniel Holguin have been forced to let some bills slip since she started walking a Vons picket line nearly seven weeks ago.

"We were depending on her income. Now, I'm trying to figure out what we can and can't pay," Daniel Holguin said this week as he pored over a pile of debts in their Inglewood home.

Ralphs worker Amanda Meyer, 23, and her 3-year-old son moved out of their apartment because she could no longer pay the rent. She now shares a cramped two-bedroom unit in Van Nuys with another single mother and two other children.

"I'm constantly stressed," Meyer said. "My mom took ... a second job -- and she still has three other children at home -- and she gives me the money to help me pay my bills. I feel like I'm at the bottom of a pit."

The three families are among those struggling since 70,000 United Food and Commercial Workers union members were sidelined Oct. 11, when workers struck Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores after talks on a new labor contract broke down. Hours later, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc. locked out their workers.

The union had warned for months that a strike was likely, as the grocers sought concessions on health insurance and compensation to counter a looming threat from nonunion rivals such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

To prepare, union members were told to ratchet down spending, pay off their bills and save whatever money they could. But few expected the strike to last this long. The last supermarket strike in Southern California, 25 years ago, went on for just five days.

"The first week, it was almost fun," said Gail Holguin, a picket captain at a Vons on Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. "Everyone was rah-rah. I thought we would be out for two weeks, but no more than that."

Her husband, Daniel, hasn't worked in more than two years, since he nearly severed his ankle on the job at a home warehouse store. He is getting workers' compensation, but it's not clear whether his former employer will hire him back for a less strenuous job. She had made $12 an hour at Vons.

Only a month ago, the couple sank a small inheritance into a down payment on their first home, a modest, Spanish-style two-bedroom fixer. But the same windfall created a costly dispute with their son's scholarship at Chico State University. Last week, the Holguins had to pay $4,000 to keep Daniel Jr. in school. They can appeal, but they still had to pay.

Now, the items that the couple bought to spruce up the house, including a bookcase and a cabinet, will have to be returned.

A frugal sort, Daniel Holguin said he bought both of the family's cars at police auctions. Now, he says they might have to sell them for cash and then buy even cheaper cars.

At least today's Thanksgiving dinner won't be a burden. Gail Holguin said her sister was putting on the feast: "She said all we had to bring was a pie."

In Van Nuys, Amanda Meyer raises her voice to be heard over the constant roar of traffic on Victory Boulevard just below her second-story bedroom window. The traffic and her noisy neighbors seldom quiet down until well after midnight, she said, when she can finally drop off to sleep. Her son, Nathan, gets the small bedroom's tiny bed. Meyer sleeps on the floor next to him.

Meyer began her supermarket career as a bagger at 16. When the strike started, she was running the flower department at a Ralphs in Calabasas. She was making about $600 a week and the job came with fully paid health care -- a crucial benefit for a single mother.

Health benefits are central to the contract dispute. The supermarkets, facing rising pressure from nonunion warehouse stores, insist that employees must start paying a portion of their health insurance for the industry to survive. The workers say the chains are exaggerating the threat.

For Meyer, the sting of the lockout has been eased somewhat by part-time work at a gift shop in Topanga Plaza. The store manager, Marla Guzman-Sanchez, said she does seasonal hiring and wanted to give a supermarket worker a job.

"I felt blessed for the first time in a while," Meyer said.

Even so, the part-time pay doesn't match what she made at the grocery store. The other day on the picket line, Meyer said, she and another single mother lamented the days when they could at least afford to take their children on a play date together at a Chuck E. Cheese.

Now, they discuss strategies for dealing with their creditors. She said she couldn't make plans beyond a few days.

"If I think about a week from now, I'll go crazy," she said.

Labor experts say long strikes tend to favor employers, but that is not always the case, according to Richard Hurd, professor and director of labor studies at Cornell University.

"It really depends on the situation," Hurd said. "Long strikes happen because one side or the other is prepared for that. In the case of the supermarkets, the employers indicated that they were prepared for this, but the labor movement is coming together there and that may benefit the union in the long term."

One of the longest strikes in the U.S. began on Sept. 21, 1991, when 550 members of the Culinary Union struck the Frontier hotel and casino in Las Vegas. It continued for more than six years -- finally ending when the resort was sold to a buyer who quickly settled with the union.

For the Pietrantonios of Burbank, the strike should be a chance to reminisce. They met on a picket line 18 years ago, when both were supporting a walkout by meat cutters.

This strike is a double whammy for them. He works at Vons and she works at Pavilions -- which she now calls "Villains." Together, they had earned about $1,500 a week; now they are getting by on $600 a week in strike payments.

Because both breadwinners are on strike, the Pietrantonios are considered a "hardship family," and the UFCW has offered to find work for one of them at a Gelson's or Stater Bros. -- two union markets that are not involved in the dispute.

The Pietrantonios say they wouldn't feel right about accepting those jobs because both are serving as strike captains at their stores.

"We were prepared for this, and we feel we can devote ourselves fully as strike captains," Michelle Pietrantonio said.

There are two union signs in the frontyard. Inside the three-bedroom home, a small blackboard in the kitchen expresses the family's collective hope: "It's only temporary."

The couple, who have a 14-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter living at home, fondly recalled the fun they had over the holidays last year.

"We went to see 'The Lion King' at the Pantages. We went to see the Christmas celebration at the Crystal Cathedral," Silvio Pietrantonio said.

"This year, we're downsizing," his wife said, "and going to see 'Elf.' "

--- 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 ---

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