Several thousand striking and locked-out supermarket workers and their supporters marched to a Pavilions store in Beverly Hills on Tuesday in the largest demonstration since the regional walkout began Oct. 11.
The march followed a meeting of United Food and Commercial Workers presidents from about 150 union locals nationwide, who pledged several million dollars for the dwindling supermarket strike funds here.
The union also sought to portray its fight with Safeway Inc., Albertsons Inc. and Kroger Co. parent of Ralphs as a pivotal moment for American labor. "If we lose here," said national UFCW President Doug Dority, "it will set off a corporate tidal wave that will sweep away benefits in contracts in all industries."
Dority also announced there would be a national campaign to boycott Safeway, the parent company of Vons and Pavilions and the union's top public target. "We want to empty those stores," he said.
"This is an old tactic that won't impact what's going on in Southern California," Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling told Associated Press.
Federally mediated contract negotiations are set to resume Friday. The chains are seeking cuts in health benefits and a lower pay scale for new hires, which they say are needed to help them compete with discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
On Tuesday, Dority asked officers to assess their members across the country a $10-a-week surcharge for strike support to raise more funds. "We will not allow our members to be starved into submission," he said.
The union is spending about $15 million in strike benefits each week, said UFCW Communications Director Greg Denier. Each of the seven union locals involved in the dispute administers its own fund. At least one local, in San Diego, announced that it would reduce strike benefits from $300 to $100 a week. And Local 1442 in Santa Monica said it had taken out loans on its buildings to keep the strike fund afloat.
Some speakers, including the Rev. James Lawson, a longtime civil rights activist who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, nudged the union to use more militant tactics.
"I've been arrested many times, and if this moves to civil disobedience, I will be there," Lawson said, to an explosion of cheers from pickets.
But there were no arrests during the short march from Century City to Beverly Hills, where the Pavilions parking lot was overrun with sign-toting union members. Many were clearly energized by the event.
"Today was the best day yet," said Goldsborough Purnell, 45, a general-merchandise department head at an Albertsons in Hermosa Beach for three years. Purnell, who earned $9.78 an hour, said he lost his home last month because he wasn't able to pay rent. He now lives in his car.
"We're making a statement here, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes," he said.
Jose Sanchez, a clerk at a Ralphs in Burbank, said his father and grandfather were migrant farmworkers who marched with Cesar Chavez. "My dad picked strawberries," Sanchez said. "Now look at me. I've got a family, a house, picket fence and all, the American dream. That's what my dad and grandfather fought for. I'm not going to give up on it now."