Photo by Ted Soqui
Patience is nearly out of stock in the Southland’s grocery strike, now in its fourth month. Some strikers have had to find other jobs while others, risking union discipline, have quietly gone back to work. In early November, I chatted with workers from the Ralphs store on Sunset and Fuller, popularly known as Rock & Roll Ralphs because it’s in Hollywood and near guitar shops. At that time the strike called by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) was barely a month old, and the Ralphs contingent joined picketers at the Vons at Sunset and Virgil. They were in a buoyant mood, marching around the parking lot’s perimeter while the Vons union members stood in front of the store’s doors. Cars frequently honked as they passed, and when a Teamster driver brought a tractor trailer to the store, he left it on the street, forcing the store manager to come out and back the rig into the loading pit herself.
Even then, however, there were currents of confusion and tension. The UFCW abandoned the Ralphs picket lines as a goodwill gesture to the public, but this action also made the union seem indecisive, especially since it was telling members of other unions as well as the press that it still preferred that people stay away from Ralphs. And there’s been friction between picketers standing in front of their home stores and outside picketers who have been assigned to augment their numbers. When the Rock & Roll contingent showed up the first time at Sunset and Virgil, it was told by the Vons strike captain, “This is our store, you play by our rules.” Last Saturday, I returned to the Los Feliz Vons, and there didn’t seem to be as many picketers out and most of those were huddled in front of the store. Very few cars honked in support.
“We’ve had to pull back because people in cars have thrown stuff at us,” a Rock & Roll Ralphs strike captain told me. “And now they yell things at us, like, ‘Get a job!’ or ‘Get off your ass and get back to work.’”
This captain, a middle-aged mother of four whom I’ll call Isabel, has been with Ralphs for 26 years, having worked at the Sunset store for the past three.
“The customers are younger there, and the place is full of life,” Isabel says. “I’ve worked at stores where it’s dead, but here there’s never a dull moment.” Like other picketers from her store, she seems bemused by its oddball character, including the sexual ambiguity of many customers, the daily language hassles with Russian shoppers (“One lady had the nerve to tell me, ‘You need to learn Russian!’”) and the special support the strikers have gotten from the community.
“Guys from SAG came by once,” she recalls, “and held up truck deliveries past the legal three-minute limit. One man was banging a cowbell and singing in the middle of the driveway.”
The picketing routine at the Sunset and Virgil Vons has not changed in months. Once a 24-hour shopping center, the store is now only open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. The first picketers drift in at 6 for the first of three shifts. The morning sees the largest number of pickets (40 to 50) because many have to go to later jobs, even though most customers traditionally shop between 4 and 8 p.m. The UFCW leadership has not shown much imagination in addressing this disconnect, and a recent decision to sporadically picket some Ralphs stores again will no doubt only confuse the public more.
“I don’t want to blame the union,” Isabel says, “but half the problem is the union’s strategy.” The other half, she says, is the deep pockets of the struck companies — Vons, which is owned by Safeway; Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger; and Albertsons. “Whatever they’re losing here, they’re making up for in Las Vegas or Canada.”
Indeed, the days when Southern California’s supermarket unions negotiated with local, family-owned chains are over. The current strike is somewhat the same as a few Starbucks outlets being struck by their employees.
“I didn’t even think we’d go out,” Isabel says. “I was here during the 1978 strike, and we were only out five days.”
This day — a cold afternoon threatened with rain — drags on. Maggie, an 18-year Vons employee who works at the Los Feliz Vons, peeks inside the store and counts only three registers open. A trio of three vivacious young women approach the store, but just as Isabel begins to ask them not to patronize Vons, one says:
“But we’re not shopping! We just want to use the bathroom!”
Besides not always having alternative places for the public to shop at, part of the union’s problem of keeping people out of the targeted supermarkets is that many locals come here to pay utility bills, cash checks, buy lotto tickets and use ATMs.
By now Isabel’s voice has become hoarse as she complains about strikers who have shirked picket duty, although she is angriest at her bosses. She tells me how news got back to her that the Rock & Roll Ralphs management had told scab replacements that not only had she lain down in front of delivery trucks but that she had slept with their drivers in order to stop deliveries.
“They said they had pictures of me lying down in front of the trucks, and I haven’t even done that once!” she says.
I ask what’s going to happen when the strike and lockout finally end.
“I’ve talked to a lot of employees, and our loyalty to the company is finished,” she says. “I feel betrayed. I gave up so much of my life for Ralphs. Three straight years I worked 3 to midnight, I didn’t go to family functions, and I missed a lot of my twins’ lives. I used to go after shoplifters or customers taking a lot of bags. You know what? They can have the whole store now, for all I care.”
At that moment the three young women emerge from the store and giggle when Isabel spots them.
“See?” one says, holding up empty hands. “We didn’t buy anything!”