Pickets are returning to some Ralphs supermarkets in Southern California as frustrated union members and their leaders seek to put pressure on the chain and remind shoppers that Ralphs is still a key player in the long-running labor dispute.
Greg Conger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 in Orange County, said the decision to send pickets back to selected stores was "based on the feeling of all the local unions that Ralphs has not cooperated as we felt they should" in contract talks. But he said leaders of the seven locals involved in the strike and lockout "came to different conclusions" about strategy.
The presidents of the seven locals discussed the Ralphs strategy last weekend as they concluded four days of secret negotiations with the supermarkets, which they said brought them no closer to an agreement.
The UFCW launched a regional strike against Safeway Inc.-owned Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11. The next day, Albertsons Inc. and Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs, which are part of the same collective bargaining agreement, locked out their union workers. Pickets were removed from Ralphs on Oct. 31. At the time, union leaders said they wanted to give shoppers an option.
Recently, locked-out union members who had worked at Ralphs have been pressing their local presidents to allow them to picket their home stores again, in part out of concern that shoppers might think the chain is no longer involved in the dispute, several officials said
"There's nothing like picketing your own store," said Michael Straeter, president of Local 1442 in Santa Monica.
The strike-lockout affects more than 850 stores from the Mexican border to Mono County. Each local president is handling the Ralphs question in a different way, with some sending pickets to the loading dock only and others deciding not to dispatch pickets at all.
Local 770 in Los Angeles, the largest of the seven locals with about 20,000 affected members, will not place pickets at Ralphs stores but may stage occasional protests at them, President Rick Icaza said.
"We don't want Ralphs to get off the hook," he said. "Periodically we may have a member who wants to do a rally at Ralphs to let shoppers know [the chain is] an intricate part of the problem."
Daily storefront pickets will be set up at only a few locations in Orange County and Bakersfield, according to interviews with union presidents.
Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil said the chain was prepared. "We have a whole set of contingency plans in place, so we do not anticipate having any problem getting deliveries to those stores that have pickets.
"Returning pickets to selected Ralphs stores is not going to have an impact on a resolution of the labor dispute. The union would be better off using its resources and time working on reasonable and affordable solutions to the major issues," he added.
The dispute centers on the supermarket chains' demand that workers' health benefits be reduced and that the union agree to the creation of a lower wage and benefit scale for new hires. The contract ultimately signed in Central and Southern California is likely to affect supermarket contract negotiations across the country.
Although all seven union presidents said they wanted to increase the pain at Ralphs, several also said they worried about confusing consumers.
Local presidents in San Diego and the Inland Empire said that was why they decided to limit pickets to the loading docks.
"We're not trying to keep shoppers out," said Connie Leyva of Local 1428. "We took the lines down for the duration, and we are people of our word here at 1428."