Nearly 16 years ago, the largest and longest supermarket strike in U.S. history reshaped the Southern California grocery industry.
Tens of thousands of workers at Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs stores spanning from San Diego to San Luis Obispo went on strike or were locked out, starting in October 2003 and lasting more than four months.
Grocery shoppers had to choose whether to walk past workers picketing in the cold. Those who did found shelves often half-empty as they sought groceries for Thanksgiving, then Christmas.
Others looked elsewhere, flocking to Trader Joe’s or Costco — and forming new shopping habits that boosted those chains’ fortunes.
During the strike, the chains in the labor dispute lost a combined $1.5 billion in sales.
And now it might happen again.
Early next week, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Southern and Central California plan to vote on whether to authorize another strike, this time by 46,000 unionized workers. Negotiations have stalled on a new contract with Albertsons — which now owns Vons and Pavilions — and Ralphs.
The vote doesn’t necessarily mean a strike will happen. But if approved, it would enable the union to call a strike whenever it wants. That approval would send a message to the companies that a walkout is possible if the two sides can’t reach a deal. The employees are still working under a three-year contract that expired March 3.
Pamela Hill, 58, a 23-year veteran of Albertsons who works at its store on Crenshaw Boulevard near Los Angeles’ Baldwin Hills area, is ready to send that message. A cashier and safety trainer, she plans to vote yes on authorizing the UFCW to strike.
“I was ready in 2003, but I’m more ready now because I’m at the age where I’m looking forward to my retirement in a few years,” Hill said. “I want my benefits and pensions and so forth to be intact.”