By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
no waiting on aisle one, the only checkout lane open on a recent afternoon at the Albertsons on La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road. Few shoppers crossed the picket lines that went up here when the store locked out union workers on October 12, several days after union members rejected a contract offer from the nation’s Big Three supermarket chains. Just three customers pushed their carts down open corridors, past the smattering of apples and green bananas that sat forlornly in the produce display. The meat case was nearly empty, and in live seafood the three catfish swimming in nervous circles probably remained safe for another day.
Outside, a half-dozen employees from this store and from the huge Ralphs across the street planted the sticks of their picket signs on the ground and chatted glumly. Although Southern Californians are for the most part backing the union workers by staying away, the supermarkets have not given up their demands for wage and benefit concessions, and the strike and lockout have entered their third month.
Picket captain Geraldine Coleman said she and her colleagues plan to put up a Christmas tree outside the store to bring a little cheer to their daylong vigils. But the tree, when it comes, can’t help but remind picketers that there will be no regular work and no paychecks through the holiday season. “Things are not so good,” remarked Coleman. “They’ve broken off talks maybe three or four times. But I hear they’re going to try again on Thursday.”
Coleman was too optimistic by a day. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service scheduled a new round of talks Friday between negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers, representing 70,000 striking and locked-out supermarket employees, and officials from Albertsons, Safeway (owner of Vons and Pavilions) and Kroger (owner of Ralphs). The last round of talks broke off a week earlier with no progress reported.
The grocery giants are pressing for a two-tier pay plan, in which new hires would be paid on a lower scale than current workers. The chains also insist on capping their contributions to employee health plans, a move that would translate into higher employee co-pays and deductibles. Union leaders have charged that the offer amounts to an unprecedented take-away of hard-won health benefits, and that concessions today would mean wider health-care cutbacks in the future for employees in every industry in the nation.
Labor leaders from around the nation gathered in Century City for a summit on the crisis and trumpeted what they termed a favorable settlement with Kroger in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio after a strike of several weeks. That accord underscored UFCW’s strategy of painting Kroger as the least blameworthy of the three chains in the Southern California strike. Kroger’s Ralphs stores, in fact, are no longer being picketed here, although the lockout at Ralphs and Albertsons that began the day after Vons workers began their strike remains in effect.
At least one official said the settlement in the Appalachian states showed Safeway Inc. and its hard-line president and CEO Steve Burd to be the real stumbling block. Safeway stores were not involved in the West Virginia–Kentucky–Ohio strike and settlement.
“It’s significant that when Safeway is not involved, the employees can get back to work with their health benefits protected,” UFCW spokeswoman Jill Cashen said. At the Century City summit, union officials announced sympathy pickets would go up at Safeway stores around the country.
In another sense, though, the settlement spoils an opportunity for UFCW to take its strike nationwide. Contracts between the union and major supermarket chains expire this spring in Baltimore, later in the year in Northern California and the next year in regions around the country.
The strike marks a time of drastic change in an industry that has been periodically reinvented, often by innovations in Southern California that placed customer convenience and lower prices ahead of service. The first wave of change began just before World War I, when Ralphs invented the local grocery chain by opening branches of its downtown Los Angeles store to follow customers to the suburbs. Homegrown competitors Vons and Sam Seelig were close behind.
Each of the three chains claimed to be the first in the country to adopt “cash and carry,” a practice that turned grocery stores into places where customers for the first time left with bags of food, too heavy for a walk home but fine for carrying in the car. In the 1920s, a Los Angeles Ralphs staked its claim to being the world’s first “supermarket” by offering a full range of meat, dairy products, produce and baked goods under one roof.
The era of the nationwide supermarket chain was born in 1926 when the Sam Seelig company changed its name to Safeway and merged with Skaggs stores in a deal orchestrated by Wall Street innovator Charles Merrill, who later left his firm, Merrill Lynch, to direct the grocery business. Discount pricing and shopping carts that doubled as strollers for youngsters originated at California-based Lucky, which was absorbed in the 1990s by Albertsons.
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