Four months of supermarket strike and lockout have pummeled the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), but the union has now moved its battle to a front where it enjoys supremacy — the war of images. It’s a theater of harsh contrasts that pits workers and their families, struggling to survive on strike pay and no medical insurance, against cuff-linked CEOs and their hired strikebreakers. Last week the UFCW and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) organized a pilgrimage to the Northern California home of Steve Burd, the CEO of Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions supermarkets. The plan called for a delegation of workers and clergy, brought by one bus and a few cars, to present Burd with 10,000 letters petitioning him and the heads of Ralphs and Albertsons to return to negotiations deadlocked over health-care benefits and new-employee salaries.
The pilgrimage kicked off at a Sherman Oaks Pavilions with speeches, song, the waving of sage and the presentation of four puppies — Burd is said to have a soft spot for stray animals. The idea behind this trip was to appeal to the CEO’s religious conscience, as word had it that Burd belonged to an evangelical Christian group in Walnut Creek — not some snake-handling cult but, as one priest described it, a “Happy Jesus” congregation.
After stopping for a second rally at a Ventura Vons, the bus continued up Highway 101, rolling deep into the green hills of California’s central coast, past old eucalyptus windbreaks and below the slopes of new-money vineyards. The sky was low with rain, and everywhere one looked stood the arthritic silhouettes of dead oaks. The trees, stricken by a mysterious fungus, seemed emblematic of a California that is passing away a little more each day, a golden state famous not only for oaken ridges and misty horizons but for being a place where union members could expect to work at lifetime jobs with benefits and pensions. Now, on the bus, the pilgrims, mostly women, spoke gloomily of the companies’ intransigence.
“The worst thing is not being able to get things for my three kids like I’ve always done,” said Sandra, a 26-year African-American veteran of Ralphs in Torrance. A single parent, she lives in Hawthorne and regretted not being able to buy her daughter a cheerleader’s uniform. “I couldn’t even afford to give her a decent 16th birthday, and that’s important to a 16-year-old.”
“I want to get my insurance back,” said Sandy, a Paso Robles grandmother who works at an Albertsons deli counter. “I was out on disability for 10 months before the strike started and was only back on the job two weeks before we went out. I would tell Steve Burd to think about the people who have made him rich.”
That night, as the bus swung into San Jose, bound for a synagogue rally, Fidel Sanchez, a member of the Shalom Pico Union Methodist Ministry, picked up his guitar and sang “De Colores.” I’d first heard the song 30 years ago when César Chávez’s United Farm Workers were fighting a life-and-death struggle with the Teamsters for control of the peach groves and table-grape vineyards outside Fresno. The UFW, backed by dedicated cadres of priests and nuns, had been masters of imagery, and their strikes, boycotts and marches to Sacramento won the hearts of an affluent public that didn’t mind giving up lettuce, grapes or Gallo wine until the migrant workers got a piece of what used to be called the American Dream.
But where was that big-hearted California now? Did the great TV-tethered public, hypnotized by Paris Hilton and Super Bowl ads, even know that 70,000 UFCW members were out of work, did it ever question the supermarket companies’ slick newspaper ads that portrayed their workers as daydreaming ingrates?
About 50 strikers, their kids and CLUE members spent a short, sleepless night on wrestling mats in the echoey gym of Holy Names High School in the Oakland hills. They were up before dawn, and within a few hours the bus pulled into the treesy, Benz-and-bedroom village known as Alamo. About 200 local union and clergy supporters greeted the Southern Californians with loud cheers in front of a Safeway before yet another rally began.
“It’s not just our fight, it’s everybody’s fight — it’s every union’s fight,” Cynthia Hernandez, a five-year Rolling Hills Pavilions employee told the crowd. With her short black hair, glitter-dust eyeliner and pierced nose, the 21-year-old Hernandez looked like a Hollywood club girl until she spoke, in a quavering voice, about how she and her 2-year-old daughter, whom she’d brought with her, were living uncertainly from day to day. “We must fight these people, we must fight Steve Burd,” she continued, her voice cracking with emotion. “We know deep down inside he knows what he’s doing is wrong. We are his workers, we are his people.”
Soon afterward, the crowd marched a few blocks to Burd’s neighborhood to find out just how true that was. The marchers would never glimpse the CEO’s house, however — they would not even be allowed to profane with their footsteps the asphalt leading to it. For there is another kind of American Dream, one very different from that of Cynthia Hernandez and her co-workers. This other American Dream is built on gated subdivisions, surveillance cameras and private roads; it is a feudal fantasy tended by housekeepers, drivers, tutors, publicists, personal trainers and security patrols. Burd lives on nearly seven acres of such a dream called Alamo Ridge, and the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department would only allow credentialed media and six clergy members onto private Las Trampas Road.
As the contingent and a couple of dogs climbed a half-mile grade, the mailboxes got larger and all seemed built in the shape of birdhouses. The air became damp and heavy with the scent of bay laurel and of nearby stables — all the oaks here were very much alive.
“You have my permission to go and string that guy up, I hate him!” called down a resident from the deck of his A-frame. Another neighbor, across the street, who said he was a retired teacher and union member, also voiced support for the demonstrators.
Eventually the five ministers and one rabbi reached a big gate dividing the upper class from the upper-middle class. They and the 10,000 letters they brought were met by Guy Worth, a distressed-looking man who said he was Burd’s personal representative. Worth was conservatively tailored, soft-spoken, and nodded during the appropriate moments of give-and-take with the delegation. Later it emerged that he was merely a well-dressed security guard from Safeway, but in that moment of exchange the ministers and the rabbi trusted him and began the kabuki of public petition, a ritualized dance in which the clergy members said they knew Burd was a man of conscience and God who liked puppies, while the personal representative personally promised to deliver their three sacks of letters to the lord of Alamo Ridge. After about 15 minutes the clergy got Worth to hold hands with them and pray, and then the gates opened and the personal representative walked back up the hill to Burd’s house with its garden, swimming pool — and fireplaces.
Days later, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer told a wildly cheering strike-support rally in Inglewood that he will charge the three supermarket chains with antitrust violations, citing a mutual-aid pact created to beat the union. And next week, Safeway Inc.’s latest earnings report is expected to reflect crippling losses — while a long-predicted federal probe into the alleged hiring of locked-out Ralphs workers under false Social Security numbers has been formally announced. Although these developments bode well for the UFCW, their forcing of a settlement of the strike and/or Steve Burd’s resignation may take months. In the meantime, the union will have to stop ignoring its members’ energy and ingenuity, and instead use them to create a theater of confrontation and appeal that will win over the public — the strike’s ultimate mediators.