Strike Three

Managers park semis, regulars get crabby and allegations fly

Kaemmerer says the grocers will protest all unemployment claims.

Outside the Maplewood Shop 'n Save, strikers held signs saying, "We have our hep shots!" -- a reference to replacement employees who are permitted by the health department to work up to 30 days before getting the hepatitis A shots required for workers who handle food. "Immunization is happening as it should," assures Lori Willis, a spokeswoman for the Greater St. Louis Food Employers' Council. "All of our delis aren't up yet," she adds.

The stores are attempting to reopen delis and meat departments, but most workers are members of other unions and are refusing to cross picket lines. Willis says trained food handlers and butchers are being brought in from other parts of the country. In addition, the stores have hired 7,800 temporary replacement workers, many of whom are being paid higher wages than union employees.

Picketers patrol the entrance to Schnucks at Ladue Crossing
Jennifer Silverberg
Picketers patrol the entrance to Schnucks at Ladue Crossing

In the Shop 'n Save parking lot, a Coca-Cola truck driver takes another shot at backing the trailer into a tight loading bay. Teamsters won't drive trucks across the picket line. Some have stopped their trucks in the middle of the street, leaving non-union drivers to step in and drive the cargo to the loading docks. The Coca-Cola Company has its managers driving rigs from the St. Louis distribution warehouse to the 97 stores being picketed. One manager, who declined to give his name for publication, had been called in from Louisville to deliver Coke. Dressed in black dress shoes and black slacks, the manager says he has a commercial driving license but hasn't been behind the wheel of a rig for many years. "If you've done it before, it comes back to you pretty easy," he says. It takes three tries to back his trailer into the bay.

The union is pressuring local police departments to check the licenses of drivers, asserting that many are unqualified to drive big rigs. "We've had a half-dozen reports of them hitting docks, hitting cars in the parking lot," Finkelstein asserts.

With 10,000 employees on strike or locked out, St. Louis became the first in a wave of grocery-store strikes that now engulf 100,000 people in three states. The question now becomes who can hold out the longest.

Union employees received their final paychecks last week, and with the beginning of November come mortgage payments, tuition installments and other due dates. A letter sent to Shop 'n Save employees informed them they'll have to pay $478 to maintain their health insurance for December. "There is still enough time in October to avoid this problem," the letter says. "Use your good judgment!!!"

While many parking lots remain nearly empty, the stores insist that more customers are crossing the picket line every day. Employers' council spokeswoman Lori Willis would not discuss how much money the stores are losing but concedes that "it's a costly proposition to keep these stores operating in this very challenging situation."

For now, the unions and the stores are at an impasse. "There is a lot of face-saving going on," says Washington University's Bernstein. "One of the two sides is really going to have to give. It will come down to the attitude of the consumers: If people keep shopping at Schnucks and Dierbergs and Shop 'n Save, then I think that will put a lot of pressure on the union. If they stay away, that will put a lot of pressure on the companies."

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