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National Support Promised in Grocery Strike

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to inject new energy into the long-running California grocery strike, labor leaders laid out a national support campaign Saturday at a boisterous rally outside an empty, heavily guarded Vons supermarket in Inglewood.

Actions -- including large demonstrations marked by civil disobedience -- were promised in a dozen cities from Seattle to Baltimore, and a national boycott was promoted, as leaders try to increase the financial pain of the grocery chains involved in the dispute.

The strike against Vons, Pavilions, Ralphs and Albertsons stores throughout Southern California is now in its 17th week.

“This is a tough fight, but the UFCW is a tough union,” said Joseph Hansen, secretary treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. “We’re not going to stop until our members are treated with dignity and respect.”

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The rally, which drew an estimated 14,000 union members and supporters, was the first sign of a heightened involvement in strike strategy by the AFL-CIO. Linda Chavez-Thompson, the labor federation’s executive vice president, called the striking and locked-out workers “the heroes of the American labor movement.”

But Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon said the demonstration did nothing to move the dispute toward resolution. “No amount of rallies are going to change the issues on the table,” she said. “There’s still skyrocketing medical costs. There are still competitive pressures.”

Citing competition from Wal-Mart and other nonunion stores, the chains are proposing cuts in medical benefits and a significantly lower wage package for new hires. Calderon said that there had been informal talks between the chains and national UFCW officials in recent weeks but that both sides were still “far apart.”

The UFCW launched a strike against Safeway-owned Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11. Albertsons Inc. and Kroger-owned Ralphs locked out their union workers the next day.

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Federally mediated negotiations have not been held for more than a month, and none are scheduled.

The rally featured several national union presidents and elected officials, including California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

Many of the speakers characterized the battle as a watershed.

“The community is behind you; that’s why they’re not crossing the picket line,” Hahn said. “They know if you lose your health benefits, they’re next.”

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Several unions presented giant checks for a strike hardship fund. Among them was the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which has pledged $1 million to help striking and locked-out workers cover medical expenses.

Grocery workers in the crowd said the support came at a critical time, as many were struggling to hold onto cars and homes after nearly four months without a full paycheck.

“It’s vital to our morale. When you see this kind of unity, you know you’re not alone,” said Martha Beach, who worked as a cashier at a Ralphs in Torrance. “We know what we’re out there for, but it sure is nice to have it validated.”

Aaron Roberton, a longtime employee at a Ralphs in San Dimas, said he believed the dynamic of the strike was shifting.

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“I feel the sympathy of the community coming back,” he said. “The holidays are over, and people are starting to realize this is about something bigger than they thought.”


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