Leaders of the grocery workers union in Southern California called on thousands of its members to walk off their jobs late Saturday, launching the region’s first supermarket strike in 25 years.
The order came after a day of jangled nerves and intense but ultimately fruitless efforts by union and supermarket representatives to avert a strike. Despite the intervention of a federal mediator, negotiators called it quits Saturday night after nine hours of talks at an Anaheim hotel, with the two sides still far apart on issues of health benefits and wages for new hires.
“We gave it every effort possible,” said Greg Conger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 134 in Orange County, one of seven UFCW locals whose contract with three major supermarket chains expired last Sunday.
The union chose Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions stores, as its main strike target. Shortly after 10 p.m., picket lines went up at some Vons in the region, forcing managers to abruptly close stores. The companies that operate Albertsons and Ralphs markets, which are covered by the same master contract, had said they would lock out their union workers in a show of solidarity.
“Right now, we’re open and we’re serving customers,” Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neil said after the UFCW announced the strike. He added, however, that it was a “definite possibility” that management would lock out union workers.
Representatives for Vons and Albertsons could not be reached for comment.
In all, 859 Vons, Ralphs, Pavilions and Albertsons supermarkets are affected by the strike. The UFCW represents about 70,000 workers at those stores, from the Mexican border to Mono County, and from the coast east to the Nevada and Arizona state lines.
“I’m kind of excited and worried,” said Andrew Garcia, 25, a produce worker at the Vons at 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. Garcia, a five-year Vons employee, picketed outside the store Saturday night with about 15 other union members. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
The three chains that own those markets -- Safeway; Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs; and Albertsons Inc. -- had said they would operate normally by staffing stores with managers, temporary replacement workers and employees brought in from other locations. But on Saturday night, managers at some 24-hour stores said they had no choice but to close.
“Excuse me, shoppers, we will be closing in five minutes,” the assistant manager at the Vons on 3rd and Vermont announced as dumbstruck customers prepared to head out.
At a Vons in Irvine, customers were turned away at a little after 10. A sign on the storefront window read: “Closed until 9 a.m. due to the strike.”
Both union and management have been preparing for a potential strike for weeks and in recent days have appealed for public support.
Barbara Thunderface, 34, of Echo Park, said she did not want to cross picket lines and planned to shop at smaller markets, even if their prices were higher. “I’ve gotten to know some of the employees here,” said Thunderface, who was shopping at the Vons on 3rd and Vermont. “I know they’re nervous about how they’re going to make ends meet.”
Last week, Southern California labor councils threw their support behind the UFCW, telling members who work in the stores -- from Teamster delivery drivers to refrigeration engineers -- not to cross picket lines.
Gelson’s and Stater Bros., which are covered by the same contract, signed interim agreements with the union and will not be picketed. Food-4-Less, which is also union, operates under a separate contract.
The dispute centers on health and pension benefits. The UFCW wants to maintain the premier medical plans and pensions that distinguish the union and were won through decades of strikes and hard bargaining.
The three grocery chains have said that low-cost competition from club stores and nonunion markets has changed the operating climate and isforcing them to lower labor costs. Wall Street analysts have urged the three companies to wring concessions out of their unions.
Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said that during the negotiations Saturday, the union offered ways to reduce health-care costs but that they were not taken seriously by the chains.
“It’s very disappointing,” he said. “For 25 years we’ve had a win-win relationship, then they come in with these draconian proposals. I believe they really wanted a strike. It’s basic corporate greed.”
The supermarkets have said their offer is fair given the current economy. Spokespersons would not immediately comment on the breakdown in negotiations or the strike.
The Southern California strike, the first since workers walked off the job for five days 25 years ago to win wage increases, could presage a wave of similar actions across the country.
UFCW members are on strike against other supermarket chains in St. Louis and could soon walk out of stores in Wisconsin and West Virginia, said UFCW International spokesman Greg Denier. At least eight other grocery contracts have expired or will expire by the end of this month.
With 1.4 million members, the union is among the largest in the country. Looking ahead to difficult negotiations, the UFCW launched a national supermarket strike fund a year ago. Locals have been building their own funds and warning members to prepare for a strike by paying off bills and saving money. Members will receive strike benefits ranging from $200 to $300 a week for walking picket lines.
Members voted overwhelmingly to sanction the strike, by 97%, in balloting held last week. They had expected the action to start Saturday morning. As the day progressed with no word, workers became increasingly anxious.
“This is stressing me out so much,” said Victoria Chavez, a bakery clerk at a Vons in Burbank. “My stomach hurts and I can’t get rid of my headache.”
Chavez said she and other employees in her store were asked repeatedly to resign from the union and cross the picket line, but said she refused.
Supermarket clerks earn up to $17.90 an hour and can earn double or triple pay on Sundays and holidays. Even part-time workers pay no premiums for family health insurance and have low co-payments for doctor visits.
The union said that it was willing to accept some concessions but that the proposed cuts were extreme. Union leaders also said the threat of competition from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and other discount retailers entering the grocery business had been overblown.
Staff writer Peter Pae contributed to this report
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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)
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