Shoppers in Southern California arrived at their local supermarkets Sunday to buy groceries, only to find turmoil as thousands of union workers picketed the region’s three largest chains.
The first supermarket strike in Southern California in 25 years started late Saturday night as members of the United Food and Commercial Workers walked off the job at Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores.
By early Sunday, employees at Albertsons Inc. outlets and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs stores, which share the same union contract, had joined the fray after being locked out of their stores in a show of corporate solidarity.
In all, 859 stores and 70,000 workers in Southern California and parts of Central California are affected by the labor unrest. The UFCW estimated that as many as 10,000 workers, from as far north as Mono County and as far south as the Mexican border, walked the picket lines at any one time Sunday.
“Support our picket lines! Don’t shop at this store!” sign-wielding clerks yelled out to customers pulling into the parking lot of a Vons in Eagle Rock.
Picketing workers discouraged many customers from entering the stores, leaving aisles mostly deserted. Those who crossed the picket lines to shop found a few clerks fumbling with the store’s cash registers.
“It’s very bad in there,” said Sondra Alcantara, as she lifted her bags into the back of her SUV at the Eagle Rock Vons. “The guy didn’t know what he was doing,” she said, adding that he tried to give her change twice.
Workers walking the picket lines at stores around the Southland said they were disappointed that things had come down to a strike, but they insisted that they were prepared to hold out for as long as it took to preserve their health care and pension benefits, which the companies are intent on rolling back.
“I get paid 80 cents above minimum wage,” said Gina Guglielmotti, a floral clerk overseeing locked-out workers at a Pasadena Ralphs. “People just don’t realize what we’re fighting for. They think we’re ungrateful. But we want to stop the constant degression of wages.”
The supermarkets are proposing a wage freeze and cuts to health and pension benefits for current employees and a substantially lower wage and benefit package for new hires. They say they must win concessions to compete with a host of new rivals, including discount giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is a nonunion operation.
UFCW negotiators are seeking hourly wage increases of 50 cents the first year and 45 cents each of the following two years. Veteran clerks and stockers now earn as much as $17.90 an hour. Meat cutters, the highest-paid union employees, earn up to $19.18 an hour. Baggers earn up to $7.40 an hour.
Under the supermarkets’ proposal, employees would have to contribute to monthly health insurance premiums for the first time -- at least $780 a year for family benefits. They also would see large increases in deductibles and co-pays, according to Kathy Finn, the UFCW’s director of research and collective bargaining. Health benefits for new workers would be worth less than one-third those of veteran workers’ plans, she said.
Talks between the two sides and federal mediator Phyllis S. Cayse broke off late Friday night and then resumed Saturday without the aid of the mediator. Union and supermarket officials said it was a “mutual” decision to try to work things out on their own.
But that search for compromise didn’t last long. And as of Sunday night, the union and the companies had not arranged to resume negotiations.
“It’s likely to be a few weeks before the parties are ready to get back to the table,” said Sandra Calderon, a spokeswoman for Vons. “At the end of the day, both sides remained very far on health care, pension and wages.”
To keep its stores fully staffed during the strike, Vons has reduced its hours to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at all Vons and Pavilions stores, including those that normally are open 24 hours.
Though the banks inside the stores are not covered by the contract and will remain open, many of Vons’ Starbucks Coffee bars are closed, as are many of its pharmacies. Customers dropping off prescriptions are being asked to visit certain “hub” sites and have the drugs mailed back to them.
Similarly, Albertsons has pared back its operating hours; its stores now are open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It also has reduced its pharmacy hours, spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld said.
Representatives of Ralphs could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the Teamsters union is throwing its support behind the UFCW. Its drivers have vowed not to cross the picket lines, and on Sunday many drivers parked their trucks outside stores or just down the street.
In some cases, supermarket managers have obtained commercial driver’s licenses, which allow them to back up the trucks to loading docks so that they can stock their stores. However, this plan was not proceeding smoothly at all outlets. Some managers had problems handling the huge trucks.
Robert Macik, a Vons truck driver and a member of the Teamsters union, said that after he stopped his 18-wheeler outside picket lines at one store in South Los Angeles, a substitute driver was unable to maneuver the rig properly, and the store was unable to restock its shelves. “Backing one of these things up is an art,” he said.
Other Teamsters gathered outside the stores, keeping checkers and clerks company. “I’m just here lending a little support,” said Ralph Ochoa, a driver sitting outside a Pasadena Ralphs.
Many customers also lent a hand to striking workers, dropping off food, water and other supplies to picketers.
Debra L. Ray of Laguna Niguel dropped off a dozen doughnuts to workers at a Vons store on Crown Valley Parkway in Orange County. The American Airlines flight attendant recalled how “energizing” it was when sympathetic travelers brought doughnuts and other snacks to her and co-workers when they were striking in 1993.
“By the time our strike was over, I was saying I never wanted to see a doughnut again,” Ray recalled. “But I never forgot what it meant to us.”
Some shoppers on Sunday turned away from Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons and patronized other chains so that they wouldn’t confront striking workers.
“I won’t cross those picket lines,” said 23-year-old Wendy Fick of West Los Angeles, shopping at a Trader Joe’s in Santa Monica. “It would just turn shopping into a fiasco.”
Her friend Jennifer Nelson, 27, agreed. “It’s too uncomfortable,” she said. “We’d just feel like traitors.”
Managers at Trader Joe’s, Stater Bros. and Gelson’s, which either are nonunion or signed interim agreements to avoid a strike, said they noticed an increase in store traffic Sunday.
“There are definitely some people here that we don’t normally see,” said Robert Guillen, assistant manager of the Santa Monica Trader Joe’s. “We’d like to keep them as customers. This is a perfect opportunity.” He said the store had stocked up on extra supplies just in case it got more business.
Likewise, a Gelson’s in Pacific Palisades was much more crowded than usual. “Business is way up,” said Gelson’s grocery manager Eric Gibson.
That ticked off Edith Bartz, a Gelson’s regular who was forced to circle the lot several times looking for a parking space. “OK, I wasn’t annoyed about this strike before, but I am now,” said Bartz, from the driver’s seat of her turbocharged Audi A4. “I don’t have time for this.”
Though some customers stayed away from the picketed chains, others came in to do their regular weekly shopping, unswayed by the sign-wielding workers.
Kathy Scully of Laguna Niguel, a 54-year-old bookkeeper at a trade school, said she understood how rising medical costs were chewing into family budgets. But she said she was under a dictate from her husband, a certified public accountant, to get the best prices. And on Sunday, she said, Vons was offering some sweet deals -- strike or no strike.
“I was overspending and I had to cut back,” she said, explaining that she regularly visits two supermarkets, a Costco and drugstores in an effort to lower her grocery bill.
Others said they simply didn’t want to alter their routine.
“I love shopping at this store,” said Caryn Coulter of the Vons in Eagle Rock. When a striking checker approached her and asked her not to shop there, she found it “obnoxious.”
Patricia Aleman said she, too, will continue shopping at Vons during the strike. The other stores where the striking workers told her to shop don’t have club cards, she said, and don’t have the eScrip program that supports her daughter’s school.
Besides, she said, “I’m not supportive of strikes.” As the owner of family entertainment arcade in Alhambra, she said, “I understand the costs of running a business.”
Indeed, although most people appeared sympathetic to the strikers, yelling out support or honking their horns, some gave them a thumbs down or called them names as they passed by.
“The gravy train is over,” yelled one man, as he strode from the Eagle Rock store, not wanting to be interviewed.
Terri DeLeu, a bookkeeper and pricing coordinator striking outside a Laguna Niguel Vons, begged to differ. “We only make $25,000 a year,” she said. “That’s not enough to live in Orange County.”
If nothing else, she and others seemed ready to dig in. Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, said, “We’re going to be out there as long as it takes.”
Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this report.