Handy Market Manager Mario Calderon has been working at the venerable
independent grocery store for about 17 years, but not since the Los
Angeles riots in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994 has he
seen the surge of customers he has seen recently.
The supermarket strike that has locked-out employees picketing
outside local Vons, Albertsons, Ralphs and Pavilions since Saturday
has had a collateral effect. Customers who are not crossing picket
lines are hitting the smaller stores, like Handy Market, to buy their
Calderon said the store has been so swamped since the start of the
strike Saturday night that the market’s management has had to hire
new help. The 35-year-old Magnolia Boulevard store’s volume is up 30%
to 40%, and that is a conservative estimate, he said.
Burbank is home to three Ralphs stores, along with one Pavilions,
three Vons and one Albertsons.
“We’ll be empty by Wednesday if this keeps up,” Calderon said.
In the strike, employees who are members of the United Food and
Commercial Workers International -- upset about a shifting
health-cost burden that will be taken out of their checks under
recent contract proposals -- are asking customers not to cross picket
lines and to go to other markets. Management counters that salaries
remain competitive, but low profit margins in a competitive industry
are driving the cuts.
Ironically, it’s the smaller niche food stores that are playing a
role in what is a cutthroat grocery business, said Jack Kyser, chief
economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. The coupling
of competition from the large “super center” stores such as Costco
and the smaller, neighborhood chains is forcing the grocery companies
to cut back, he said.
Local observers said the issue was almost inevitable.
“This is a reality that is facing more and more employees,” said
Susan Bowers, Burbank Chamber of Commerce executive director,
referring to the shifting health-care burden toward employees.
Some believe the strike is a signal of what many have said is a
troubling issue of rising benefit costs paid by employees.
“I can see [management’s] argument,” said Steve Gruhlke,
controller for Burbank-based Beach Grocery Co., which has markets in
Rosemead and Downey. “I think they are seeing what we are all seeing
-- that there are tremendous contributions to pay, and that our
workers’ compensation premiums have skyrocketed. It’s very serious.”