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Cuts in Funds Wear on Pickets

Times Staff Writers

Dwindling strike funds and expired health benefits are putting California’s idle supermarket workers under increasing strain as the labor dispute heads into its fourth month.

Six of the seven union locals in the strike have in recent weeks slashed picketing workers’ pay, in some cases by as much as half.

The pay cuts, and the loss of health coverage on Jan. 1, have forced increasing numbers of striking and locked-out workers to look for other jobs, which has eroded the number of pickets at Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons markets in Southern and Central California.

Officials at the United Food and Commercial Workers union said Thursday that members’ resolve hadn’t weakened. “Whether they make $40 or $25 a day to walk a picket line is not going to change whether they cross picket lines” to return to work, said Barbara Maynard, a spokeswoman for two of the seven locals.

Union officials declined to say how much money each local has left in its strike fund, though they said it was enough to support the labor action through at least May. The locals have continued to receive infusions of cash from several sources, including the UFCW International and the AFL-CIO, and officials said they had yet to tap resources from other UFCW locals throughout the United States and Canada.

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Leaders of the seven UFCW locals called a strike at Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions on Oct. 11 after contract negotiations broke down. Union workers at Kroger Co.'s Ralphs stores and Albertsons Inc., which bargain jointly with Safeway, were locked out the next day. The union subsequently pulled the pickets from Ralphs.

The picketing has reduced customer traffic at many stores. But as the months have passed, and the picket lines have thinned, some shoppers have been returning. Now, more pickets could drop out because of the reductions in hourly strike pay.

“We had been told it would go down, but not the extent” that it did, said Michelle Pietrantonio, a strike captain at a Pavilions in Burbank whose weekly strike pay was cut to $200 from $300. “This was kind of like ‘whoa.’ We lost quite a few people on the line.”

Only one of the seven UFCW locals -- No. 1442 in Santa Monica -- has maintained its strike benefit of $40 per six-hour shift. It has managed to do so because it took out a loan on its building in Santa Monica after the strike began. Local 1442 represents 3,800 of the approximately 70,000 members who are affected by the strike and lockout.

Workers represented by Local 1167 in San Bernardino and Local 1428, which covers Claremont and Pomona, saw the steepest drop. At Local 1167, supermarket clerks who had been receiving as much as $300 a week for walking picket lines now can make a maximum of $150. At Local 1428, the most clerks can earn in a week is now $125, down from $250.

UFCW Local 770, the largest local in Los Angeles County, had paid its pickets $40 for every six-hour shift, up to a maximum of $240. In late December, that was reduced to $25 for a six-hour shift, union officials said.

Andrea Noradoukian, a 37-year-old single mother in Westlake Village and a member of Local 770, said she left the picket lines because of the cut in strike pay. She said she didn’t know when, or if, she would return.

“I can go to the park and scrounge up cans for recycling for more money than that,” said Noradoukian, a courtesy clerk at Ralphs in Calabasas. “I’m actually not even bothering to go to the line because it’s not worth it to me. I’d rather spend the time looking for a new job.”

“If they were to settle, I would probably go back to work,” she added, “but I’m kind of mad at the union and at the supermarkets. This has gone on for too long.”

To help fellow workers in Burbank, Michelle Pietrantonio and her husband, Silvio, who works at a Vons, set up job boards Thursday to help supermarket clerks find temporary work. The Pietrantonios have already lined up other jobs for themselves. Silvio Pietrantonio will start cold-calling for new clients at a financial services firm. Michelle Pietrantonio will do data entry office work. But they said they were still reluctant to completely abandon the picket line and that they felt for their fellow pickets.

“There is quite a bit of hardship out there now. It’s tough,” Michelle Pietrantonio said. “I don’t know how much longer they can hang.”

Most of the workers in the labor dispute lost their health benefits at the end of last year. A joint union-employer health fund pays the medical benefit, but the fund is nearly insolvent.

Some workers have opted under a provision of the expired contract to continue their health benefits through the first quarter of this year by making a one-time payment, said Greg Conger, president of Local 324 in Orange County. The average payment is about $370 to $385.

But many others have let coverage lapse.

Union officials have filed a federal lawsuit to force the grocery chains to pony up millions of dollars to keep the health fund solvent. The companies say they have fulfilled their responsibility. And the case is now in arbitration.

In the meantime, union officials said, workers who have chronic health problems can appeal to their local’s hardship committee for assistance.

A spokesman for Kaiser Permanente said it was continuing to treat some striking and locked-out workers. “If they show up with health problems, we’re going to take care of them,” the spokesman said.

Kaiser, PacifiCare Health Systems Inc. and Blue Cross of California have been working with the health-care fund to delay payments so the fund won’t be entirely depleted.

--- 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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