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Strike Three 

Managers park semis, regulars get crabby and allegations fly

Joanne Rintoul returned to University City last week from a trip to England and found an empty pantry. She also discovered pickets in front of the Dierbergs in Brentwood where she usually shops. Rintoul isn't a member of a union, but like many St. Louisians, she has family members who are. So on a Wednesday afternoon, she found herself filling a grocery basket at Whole Foods on Brentwood Boulevard.

Along with a lot of other specialty stores and small grocers, Whole Foods has cashed in on the grocery strike. In order to accommodate the whopping 50 percent increase in business they say they've experienced since the strike began October 7, they're even offering free valet parking on the weekends. They've brought in chefs from other Whole Foods stores so that deli dishes are available for the throngs. And they've hired extra workers to keep registers ringing and carts at the ready.

Even though Whole Foods isn't a union store (a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655 says the company strongly opposed efforts to organize), shoppers are flocking there because "they are not going to cross the picket line," says Marcia Whelan, a red-headed marketing manager at the Brentwood store who sports dreadlocks and funky green glasses. She adds that Whole Foods checkers start at $8 an hour and the chain offers benefits to part-time employees, and that the company has brought in a massage therapist to minister to employees who are working harder and longer during the strike.

Smaller local independents are benefiting from the strike as well, though staffers at those grocers have been forced to endure the complaints of regular customers who gripe about having to stand in line with a basket behind all the interlopers. "People are getting sick of it," says Missy Schif, a locked-out Schnucks employee who got a job at Johnny's Market on Gravois in south county a few days after the strike began. "The regulars at Johnny's can't stand it."

Schif took the $10-an-hour job -- a $7-an-hour cut in pay -- because she can't afford to be out of work. "I can't pay my car payment, my telephone, electricity, gas and sewer unless I have a job," says Schif, a 22-year employee of Schnucks. "I didn't want this strike. I think people might be thinking twice, that maybe it wasn't that bad."

Members of Local 655 overwhelmingly rejected a contract with Schnucks Markets, Dierbergs Markets and Shop 'n Save Warehouse Foods on September 30. The workers' main beefs: small raises and a contract that required them to begin bearing some health-insurance costs. It wasn't the first time union members had turned down a contract offer made by local grocers. It was, however, the first time the stores -- faced with rising healthcare costs and unprecedented competition from superstores such as Wal-Mart -- stood together and refused to go back to the bargaining table.

"The stores really thought members wouldn't support [striking] by a two-thirds vote," says Local 655 spokesman Ed Finkelstein. "If they didn't support it, they would have a contract."

The stores talked up the merits of the contract and some even hired buses to drive employees to vote before the sun rose on October 7. When members voted 4,252 to 1,670 in favor of a strike, the buses left, Finkelstein claims. (A spokesman for the alliance of stores denies the charge.)

"Employees are strapped, money isn't going that far, health insurance is going up, the economy stinks and they're mad, and they're showing their rage in the only way they can," says Neil Bernstein, a Washington University law professor and labor arbitrator. "It has a lot in common with what you're seeing with the election in California. It's the same kind of rage and frustration."

With authorization to strike, union leadership chose to picket Shop 'n Save and told Schnucks and Dierbergs employees to report to work. But the alliance of stores had made a pact to lock out all union workers if any stores were struck, and they made good on their promise.

The union claims that Schnucks, Dierbergs, and Shop 'n Save are behind an effort by some union members pushing for another vote. "It is becoming clear that these companies are attempting to break the union," Finkelstein says, pointing to letters that stores sent to employees October 9 with instructions about how to resign their union memberships.

"That's ridiculous," scoffs Michael Kaemmerer, attorney for the three-store alliance. He claims the stores are merely responding to questions from associates who wanted to know if they could get out of the union and return to work without being fined.

But the letters were sent to employees of all three stores, even though workers at Schnucks and Dierbergs cannot legally go back to work at their stores even if they do resign from the union. (Because they have been locked out, labor law prevents them from returning to work until the strike ends. Employees at Shop 'n Save could resign the union and cross the picket line because that store is being struck.)

Denise Lowe, a Schnucks cashier, listened to gospel music last week as she stood on the picket line in front of the store on Clayton Road in Richmond Heights. Lowe says she has enough money to last a few weeks, but she has filed for unemployment benefits along with many of her coworkers.

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.

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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More by Shelley Smithson

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