Safeway union brings pickets to East

Striking Calif. workers seek national attention by targeting D.C. -area stores

November 26, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Striking California supermarket workers have brought their picket signs to Washington-area Safeway Inc. stores in an attempt to steer shoppers elsewhere and bring national attention to their six-week battle with employers over escalating health care costs and wage freezes.

About 50 strikers from California were joined by about 150 from West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio to target 21 Safeway stores throughout Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Washington. The pickets could eventually reach Baltimore stores, union organizers said.

They began the campaign Saturday with a rally at a Safeway on Piney Branch Road in Washington and said they would picket daily until Christmas.

Safeway has responded by placing signs in its groceries advising customers that local stores aren't involved in the California strike.

"We want them to know that the demonstrators at some of our stores are union members trying to involve local shoppers in a California dispute," said Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for Safeway's eastern division, based in Lanham.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union began the strike in California against Safeway-owned Vons and Pavilion stores Oct. 11. Ralphs and Albertsons Inc., owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., which bargains with Safeway, locked out their union workers a day later.

Monday, the Teamsters union ordered its 8,000 drivers and warehouse workers to stop work at 10 distribution centers in Southern and Central California for the duration of the strike.

The grocery union is pressuring Safeway Chief Executive Officer Steven A. Burd who they say is at the forefront of an effort to reduce the wages and benefits of grocery workers around the nation.

Labor experts say the UFCW has been successful at negotiating contracts that have moved workers in low-skill jobs into the middle class, as manufacturing unions did several decades ago.

Union leaders say that if the conflict is not resolved in California, workers in Washington and Baltimore could end up on the picket lines when their contracts expire in March.

"Frankly, the grocery industry as a whole has decided that even though they've been bringing in profits over the last five years, they're not going to provide the same level of benefits they have in the past," said C. James Lowthers, president of UFCW Local 400 in Landover.

About 750,000 grocery clerks and cashiers at 859 stores, mostly in Southern California, are striking. Stores have remained open during the strike, but sales have dropped, analysts said.

At issue is a proposal by management to freeze wages for two years and require workers to begin paying part of their health insurance premiums. Management also wants to create a second tier of wages and benefits for new employees.

Safeway's TenEyck said the proposal would put the grocer's employees in line with the more than 90 percent of the nation's workers who pay a portion of their health benefits.

"The unions would like you to believe that the Southern California supermarkets are taking away health benefits, but nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

Yesterday, nine pickets outside the Safeway on Baltimore Avenue in Laurel carried blue and gold signs that read "Hold the Line for Affordable Healthcare. Don't Shop Safeway."

Barry Cole Jr., 21, came from Victorville in Southern California's San Bernardino County. He has worked at the Vons there for a year. His father, who has worked for Vons for 25 years. is picketing on the West Coast.

Cole said he doesn't mind paying some of his health care premium but that the company's plan would consume half of his salary.

"This is the place to make a difference," Cole said of coming to Washington. "Congress is here. The president is here. We can reach a lot of shoppers here."

Cole passed out fliers to customers and encouraged them to shop at other stores.

"I want my dad to be able to retire," he told customer Dusty Eves. "Please take your business elsewhere. There's a nice Giant down the street."

Like many shoppers, Eves, a Laurel banker, said the California strike isn't a high priority for him. But the pickets caught his attention, he said, and he would consider shopping elsewhere.

"They say in business your No. 2 priority is supposed to be keeping your employees happy," Eves said. "If there's people out here striking, they must not be too happy."

The fliers didn't sway all shoppers. Some left the store with shopping carts full of food, two days before Thanksgiving, brushing past pickets and saying they had gotten a flier the day before.

Analysts said bringing the dispute to Washington during the busy holiday season would bring the union national publicity and cut into sales. The Pleasanton, Calif.-based chain owns 180 stores in the East.

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