The Southern California supermarket strike reached a milestone as it extended into Thanksgiving week and won key backing from Teamsters, who stopped delivering turkeys, cranberry sauce and other groceries to area Vons, Pavilions, Ralphs and Albertsons stores.

Teamsters already had been supporting the United Food and Commercial Workers union by refusing to back their trucks up to supermarket loading docks. But this week they stopped driving their trucks to the stores altogether.

The move came as representatives of the storeowners and UFCW broke off talks after two days of mediated negotiations. Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, told City News Service it was necessary “to give the parties time away from the table at this critical juncture.”

Southern California grocery workers walked off the job October 11, six days after expiration of a four-year contract that provided employees a health plan for which they did not have to pay premiums. They also could choose a plan that allowed them to see a doctor without a co-payment. The new contract offered by the corporations would have required employees to pay health premiums for themselves and their families for the first time in 50 years.

There are also wage and pension disputes, but the health-care benefits are at the heart of the strike. Labor leaders say janitors, hotel workers and grocery clerks are the last remaining union employees to keep their organizations together and their health benefits intact, largely because their work can’t be exported to countries with lower labor costs, as manufacturing jobs have been. But grocery chains here now are trying to cut costs in order to compete with discount chains like Wal-Mart, which last year became the world’s largest grocer.

The grocery workers’ beef with storeowners reached across the country this weekend as Southern California store clerks put up pickets at Safeway stores in the Washington, D.C., area. Safeway Inc. owns Vons and Pavilions. There is little indication so far that the Washington pickets have caught the attention of federal lawmakers.

In Southern California, meanwhile, UFCW officials asked hungry customers not to do their Thanksgiving shopping (or any other shopping) at Ralphs stores, which are owned by Kroger, even though workers lifted their pickets of Ralphs several weeks ago as a “gesture of gratitude” to customers for not crossing the lines.

The mixed messages are exacerbated by the difficulty in figuring out just who is on what side in the era of corporate conglomerates. The union, for example, is encouraging shoppers to shift their grocery dollars from Ralphs to Food 4 Less, which has a separate contract but is also owned by Kroger. Meanwhile many customers are moving their prescriptions to Sav-On to avoid crossing picket lines surrounding supermarket pharmacies. Sav-On is owned by Albertsons. At the Sav-On at the City Hall mall in downtown Los Angeles, just as at Sav-Ons around the region, shoppers who refuse to enter an Albertsons store get some relief from the strike by purchasing packaged foods and beverages from cashiers wearing the Albertsons logo on their name tags.

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