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As Southern California's three largest supermarket chains - Safeway's Vons, Kroger's Ralphs, and Albertsons - struggled with a strike by some 70,000 employees at a total of 859 stores, Reuters reports that more than 3,000 grocery clerks who work for Kroger in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky voted yesterday to go on strike.

"What happens in Southern California will shape what happens in other areas," Greg Denier, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), told Reuters. "Southern California is leading the nation in this fight."

There also are numerous reports indicating that this strike is just the precursor of a series of management-labor confrontations over the issue of health benefits, which is seen by the UFCW as a far more pressing issue than even wages and other benefits. Union leadership told The Los Angeles Times that in Southern California, management has proposed a wage freeze and asked employees, who earn between $12 and $19 an hour, to pay about $800 a year toward their health benefits and to accept higher deductibles and co-payments. In addition, new employees will get even less in the way of wages and health benefits.

"Increased health premiums reduces [low-wage] employees to the poverty level," the UFCW's Denier told Reuters. "What you are witnessing is the life-and-death struggle of the employer-based healthcare system. If you can't have secure benefits with profitable companies, then who is safe? No one."

The Southern California strike began late Saturday night when members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union walked off the job at Safeway's Vons and Pavilions units, followed quickly by a lockout of union employees at Ralphs and Albertsons, in what was termed a "show of corporate solidarity."

Adding to the severity of the situation in Southern California is a decision by truckers who belong to the Teamsters union not to cross the UFCW picket lines, a move that reportedly has snarled distribution.

The chains are relying on store managers and replacement workers to drive supply trucks, restock shelves, and ring up purchases. In the case of Ralphs, the company reportedly has hired more than 10,000 replacement workers, as well as brought in hundreds of clerks and managers from other Kroger divisions around the country.

At the same time as the grocery industry has been disrupted from Santa Barbara to San Diego, similar events have transpired in St. Louis, Missouri, with a strike at Supervalu's Shop 'n Save chain and subsequent lockout of employees at Schnucks and Dierbergs.

Not surprisingly, in both markets there are reports of significant sales slowdowns at the affected stores - which have been forced to reduce store hours as they train replacement workers - while the competition not being struck sees an increase in sales and customer traffic.

In Southern California, according to varying reports, the beneficiaries are companies such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Gelson's, and Stater Bros.

In St. Louis, one of the main beneficiaries of the strike seems to be Wal-Mart.

The Associated Press reports that there are no signs of any sort of compromise on the horizon, and that both sides are digging in for a protracted walkout.
KC's View:
It's nice to know that there remain pockets of civility out in Southern California.

The Los Angeles Times reports that while "both sides remained far apart on contract terms, relations between at least some store managers and their picketing employees seemed to remain cordial.

"At the Vons on 3rd Street, a district manager sent over bottles of water for the strikers and assistant store manager Ron Avilla came out of the store bearing Popsicles for the picket line.

'This is hard for everyone — the community, the workers and us,' Avilla said, as workers crowded around him to grab a cold treat."

Both sides need to recognize that some sort of Popsicle strategy is necessary to resolve these issues as soon as possible. We understand that both sides may be arguing for their very existence, which is why they need to find some sort of compromise. They certainly have common ground - Wal-Mart is threatening the viability of each.