Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Ranks thin in fourth month

By Alex Veiga
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - The picket lines began thinning after Christmas - when union strike pay for the grocery workers was cut in half - and every day since, there have been fewer people holding picket signs with Vicky Cooper outside a Vons supermarket.

"The team is falling apart," the 25-year-old checker said. "Everybody said 'Forget it, we're not coming back.'"

The strike and lockout affecting 70,000 Southern California grocery workers at three supermarket chains is in its third month. The dispute involves Albertsons Inc.; Cincinnati's Kroger Co., which runs Ralphs; and Safeway Inc., which owns the Vons and Pavilion chains.

The dispute is among the nation's longest in recent decades involving so many workers, although strikes involving fewer workers have lasted more than a year.

Cooper said many of her fellow co-workers have had to take other work or cross picket lines to return to their old jobs, unable to make ends meet on the $20 to $25 a day they get for walking the picket lines. Others lost their health-care benefits at the start of the year and had to pay $365 to extend them through March.

Talks stalled

Leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers union portray the dispute as a symbol of a growing schism between American workers and corporations, as companies seek to reduce health care and other benefits while holding down wages.

The union and the AFL-CIO have launched a nationwide campaign to demonstrate that other workers could share the grocery workers' plight.

Contract talks have been stalled since December, with both sides still far apart over how much the company should contribute toward health-care plans for current employees and new hires. Informal talks broke off this month, and no more meetings are scheduled.

Union leaders say they are determined to stay on strike as long as it takes to preserve their members' health benefits.

"Our members average $20,000 a year. The employers are asking us to pay $5,000 of that'' toward health care, Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said. "We can't afford to do that."

Of the roughly 22,000 Vons employees on strike, about 10 percent have returned to work, a source familiar with the chain's operations said.

Union officials said a few Vons employees have crossed picket lines but would not say how many. Vons officials would not disclose their own counts.

Fifty to 100 employees locked out by Ralphs supermarkets returned to work under false names and Social Security numbers, according to a lawsuit filed by the union. Ralphs officials have denied the allegation.

Ends not meeting

Sunny Kim, 32, made $18.90 an hour as a service manager at Ralphs. The single mother has been unable to find a part-time job that pays her enough to afford day care for her three children, ages 3, 5 and 11.

"I have no money. I had money saved, but that's all gone," Kim said. "I'm going crazy."

She had to ask the union for money to help pay her $920 rent this month and reluctantly accepts bags of dry goods handed out by the union. She can't afford to extend health insurance coverage for herself and her children.

Warren Chapman, a Vons grocery manager in Torrance, took a part-time job to help make ends meet. He makes about half the $18.90 an hour he earned at Vons.

"All my savings are gone," said Chapman, 35, who said he needs affordable health benefits to pay for surgery for his 41/2-month-old son, Markus, who suffers from a potentially terminal heart ailment.

The companies have lost millions of dollars in sales because of the picketing but have been able to keep stores open with replacement workers. While the losses in Southern California are substantial, they represent just a fraction of the companies' overall revenue.

"The longer these things go on, the more difficult they become for the workers to prevail," said Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "It's not as hard to replace a cashier as it is to replace a technician in a modern steel plant or a pilot on a plane."

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