More Southern Californians are venturing back to their local Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons stores, although the supermarket chains and the union representing striking workers disagree about how many people are crossing the picket lines and what it means.
Shoppers interviewed this week said they were returning to the stores for sale items, or the few things they couldn’t find anywhere else. Some said they were just fed up with the inconvenience created by the strike that began Oct. 11.
“I’ve had it,” said Kimberly Gazsi, 43, of Costa Mesa, who has defied picket lines twice in the last few days, though she described herself as sympathetic to grocery workers.
“I can’t go to Trader Joe’s, Costco and Santa Monica Seafood,” she said at the Ralphs in Santa Ana as she tossed steak, yogurt, cereal and bottled water into a cart that held two of her three daughters. “I don’t have the time to run to three different places for groceries.”
Lawrence Gibney, a 36-year-old waiter, said he also wanted to support the strike but had crossed picket lines twice in the last week, in one case to pick up special products, such as his favorite sugar-free peanut butter.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to get all the way to another neighborhood,” Gibney said. “Generally speaking, I am doing my shopping elsewhere. Today it’s just a few things.”
The supermarket companies would say only that generally, traffic has recently picked up. “We’ve seen a flow of customers back into our stores,” said Sandra Calderon of Vons, a unit of Safeway Inc. “We’re not ready to give those numbers out.”
United Food and Commercial Workers union leaders agreed that more people were crossing the picket lines, but noted that they always had expected some shoppers would return to the stores as the strike wore on.
“Customer support is still strong,” said Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Orange County. “The support we have had so far is much greater than what we’d ever expected.”
Based on a recent poll of picket captains, UFCW officials have estimated that traffic at the three chains is down about 75%. Union officials also estimate that the three chains are losing about $100 million a week in sales at their 859 stores in Southern and Central California.
But with increasing numbers breaching the picket lines, some striking workers are worried.
At the Vons in Koreatown, striking checker Felix Fundora said that although the number of shoppers was still low, he was discouraged to see more line-crossers every day.
“If people only realized that if they could shop elsewhere, it would help us out a lot and we could end this thing,” said Fundora, a 15-year Vons veteran who said he had begun to look for another job. “We need them.”
Industry experts say it is impossible to predict how many more people will cross picket lines and what the effect will be.
Barring a dramatic shift in the number of shoppers, labor and financial analysts say neither side is likely to be swayed anytime soon.
Talks broke down nearly three weeks ago, and no negotiations are planned.
“The success or failure of the strike is not measured by a total shutdown; it’s measured immediately by the number of shoppers who go elsewhere, and longer term by the number of shoppers who might change their buying patterns,” said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in labor issues. “That’s a pretty tough prospect for these chains.”
Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T; Capital Markets in Richmond, Va., said the chains were not counting on shoppers to return overnight.
“I’m sure there’s a limit to the pain they can endure, but I believe they are prepared to endure a lot of pain,” Wolf said.
The UFCW struck Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11, after the two sides failed to agree about health benefits and other issues in contract talks with the three chains. The next day, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc. locked out their workers in a show of solidarity with Safeway.
Health benefits are a major issue, as the chains seek to have workers pay for insurance that in the past has been fully paid by the companies.
Although most of the picket lines have held firm, some union pharmacists have begun returning to work.
Of Safeway’s 143 pharmacists, all of whom are union members, 131 have crossed the picket line and returned to work, Calderon said.
Albertsons chose not to lock out its union pharmacists when it shut out other workers, said spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld. The majority of the pharmacists are working in the 159 locations that have drugstores, Levenfeld said, although she declined to specify how many pharmacists the company employs or how many are walking the picket line.
Ralphs did not return calls for comment.
Other workers vowed to stay off the job. “Everyone is watching us to see what happens,” said Harry Terbarsegyan, a meat manager at a Glendale Ralphs, who said supermarkets would use a win here to push for similar concessions elsewhere.
The store had more than three dozen shoppers cruising the aisles Wednesday morning. Strikers and shoppers said the draw was unusually low prices advertised that day: chicken for 39 cents a pound, soda for $1.99 per 12-pack, 4 pounds of apples for a dollar.
“Let them buy the sale merchandise,” said Lori Begg, a produce manager at the store who was leading fellow pickets in chants. “The company is losing money on this stuff.”
At a nearby Vons, shoppers were rare. Many shopping carts were filled only with discounted water, soda or Halloween candy.
Elsie and John McDonald stopped by the store where they have shopped for 20 years to lend support to the workers.
“We have not been in there since the strike began,” John McDonald said. “I will never cross that picket line. These are my friends.”
In San Diego, wildfires prompted the union to pull down about half its picket lines Sunday to avoid exposing the workers to smoke and to allow them to volunteer for disaster relief.
Some workers said that might have caused them to lose momentum, with shoppers heading in while the pickets were gone.
“A lot of people did stop to tell us why they were going in,” said Nancy Hall, an Encinitas Ralphs cashier. “One person said ‘I’ve got evacuees at my house and have to stock up.’ ”
At the Ralphs in Santa Ana where Gazsi was shopping, about 45 people were in the store Tuesday afternoon; on the strike’s second weekend, it had been nearly deserted.
“Recently they’ve been buying a lot more stuff,” said Richard Mayorga, a 33-year-old store employee who was walking the picket line. “Last week it was pretty dead.”
The nearby Stater Bros. market in Costa Mesa was far busier. Eight of its nine checkout aisles were in use.
“I’m not confrontational, so I don’t want to cross the line,” said Kimberly MacDonald, 34, of Costa Mesa. “If my choices were limited, I’d cross.”
Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland, Elizabeth Douglass, Leslie Earnest, Melinda Fulmer and Ronald D. White contributed to this report.