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Hard Times

By Juliet McShannon
Staff Writer

Dec. 23 -- It's Elena's thirty-sixth birthday, and she is spending the day standing in the rain outside Vons on Lincoln Boulevard holding up a placard that reads "Support the Workers -- don't buy."

Elena will spend her birthday like all the other days since October 11, when the supermarket strikes began.

"For nearly three months now, I stand outside to protest, five days a week, from seven to seven, in rain, and sun," said Elena, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals. "It is too late to turn back now."

It's been ten weeks since the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) urged workers to strike after negotiations on a new contract reached a stalemate.

Federally mediated negotiations broke down Friday after the supermarkets rejected an offer from the UFCW, and talks are not expected to resume until after January 1st, according to press reports.

Management at Vons has declined to comment for this story.

Workers at Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores were the first to strike, followed by Albertsons Inc. and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs, which bargain jointly with Safeway.

Picket lines at all four supermarkets have since become a familiar sight, and the lockout has affected 852 Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores in Southern and Central California, according to press reports.

Elena has worked for Ralphs supermarket on Barrington Avenue for nine years, but is respecting the union's call on October 31st to let Ralphs shoppers enjoy a brief respite. So she has decided to join the Vons picket lines.

"Ralphs are not too bad," she says. "At least they are trying to negotiate with the union. None of the workers likes Vons though, and Albertsons -- they won't negotiate."

Born in Armenia, Elena now lives in Glendale with her husband and two children, and commutes to Santa Monica daily to picket.

"My husband has been ill for two years," she says. "He is unemployed at the moment. I am the only one bringing any money -- and I don't know how long it will last."

The union has been supporting the strikers on a wage of $40 a day, but there is no guarantee how long the funding will last.

"I don't think the union expected this strike to last so long," Elena says. "They have told us that they might have to stop paying us. What then?"

Fortunately, Elena began putting away some money nearly a year ago, when the union warned that a strike was imminent.

"Some of my friend's just ignored the warning," she says. "Now they are even more desperate than me. Hard to imagine."

The strike, however, is taking a mental and economic toll on Elena's family.

"My sons are teenagers," Elena says. "No school uniforms at their school, and you know kids, they need to fit in with the others.

"They are tired of me talking about the strike. That's all my family ever talks about. We are all sick and tired of talking about it. There is a bad feeling at home."

Some of the strikers have quit their job at the striking supermarkets, but Elena vigorously defends her decision to continue picketing rather than find another source of income.

"I have been asked why I don't go out and find a new job," she says. "Well, it's not as easy as that.

"When you put 'lockout' on your application, new employers think that your job search is temporary and that you will return to your old job when the strike is over. I have given Ralph's nine years of my life. They owe me."

Elena said she doesn't feel threatened by the temporary workers who have been brought on board.

"We don't really speak to them, but there are no bad feelings. We know they are not professional at their job, though, and customers come up to us and complain about them. We like that they have to be trained. We don't want it easy on Vons."

Teamsters at the Vons store on Lincoln continue to drive in the food supplies as many as three times a day, Elena says.

"Most of us out here only come during the day, so we don't really know what goes on at night," she adds.

A driver passes by honking his horn, shouting 'Merry Christmas'. Elena shrugs and tries to juggle holding a cup of coffee, her placard and an umbrella.

"It doesn't feel like Christmas," she says. "Most of the strikers are Mexicans, you know. They are Christians and Christmas is a big deal. For my kids it's a big deal too.

"There won't be any Christmas presents for my family this year, and only enough of my savings left for the next one or two months," she adds.

Big Elena ties to keep focused on the bigger picture.

"It is not about me standing out here in the rain," she says. "It is about 70,000 people being left to stand in the rain. I never thought this would be allowed to happen in America."
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