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Grocery strikes, lockouts take toll


LOS ANGELES - Erica Salas, a 26-year-old with magenta streaks in her dark brown hair, may have one of the toughest jobs in the California supermarket strike.

For seven days a week, Salas sits in a tiny office in the Local 770 union hall in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, taking applications from people facing evictions, repossessions and foreclosures, sometimes even the prospect of giving up their children, at least temporarily, to relatives or former spouses.

As a caseworker on the financial hardship committee, Salas helps decide who gets some of the $1.5 million in emergency funds the local set aside to help the most down-and-out of the United Food and Commercial Workers members who went on strike or were locked out five months ago.

All too often, all she can do for them is listen. "It's hard emotionally, and it's physically draining," said Salas, a one-time clerk in a Vons supermarket. "You just want to cry."

About 59,000 people were suddenly without regular wages Oct. 11 when the union struck Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores. Albertson's Inc.'s grocery stores and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs supermarket chain locked out their union workers the next day.

Union members who pull picket line duty earn strike pay. It was slashed nearly in half in late December, so that most make about $125 for five days on the line. Company-paid health benefits expired at the end of the year.

The union and the supermarkets say they don't know how many people are still unemployed. The union says 9 percent of the 21,000 Vons and Pavilions employees who walked out have gone back; the 38,000 UFCW members locked out by Ralphs and Albertson's can't legally return to their old jobs.

If the scene every morning at Local 770's headquarters in Los Angeles is any indication, many of the 14,500 members affected by the strike and lockout haven't been able to find part-time work to supplement their strike pay.

By 10 a.m., dozens of people are queued up. Armed with sheaves of unpaid bills, bank statements, rental and lending agreements and angry letters from creditors, they fill the hall decorated with murals depicting the union's history and spill out into an adjacent waiting room.

There is little conversation.

"They are people leaving the middle class on an express train to who knows where," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies for the University of California at Berkeley.

Salas and the 21 other volunteers on the hardship committee are getting the same $25 a day as their colleagues on the picket line. They sometimes find themselves thinking that no pay would be enough.

"The reality is the devastation. I almost didn't come back" to work on the committee after the first day, said Dora Cano, locked out of her job as a bookkeeper at a Ralphs store. "You see grown men with tears in their eyes."

Salas ticked off a few of the hardship cases: the checker with an unemployed husband, two months behind in her rent. Another was a checker who had been evicted from her apartment and was living in her car. A clerk owed more than $3,700 in back mortgage payments, his car had been repossessed, his bank account was closed and his wife was out of work. Then there was the clerk who said his wife had attempted suicide.

Most every story can seem as hard to listen to as to live. "You don't really sleep at night," said Janellie Arana, who had worked as a checker at a Vons store. "You lie awake thinking about everybody's hardships."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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