ALAMO, Calif. -- The 16-week-old strike-lockout in Southern California shifted to Northern California last week as union members and religious leaders took their complaints right to the doorstep of Steve Burd.
An estimated 200 to 250 peaceful protesters marched two miles from a Safeway store here to just outside the gated community in which Burd, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Safeway, lives.
The purpose of the effort, union spokesmen said, was to deliver more than 10,000 cards and letters from religious leaders and churchgoers urging Burd to resume labor talks with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Five clergy members were allowed to deliver the messages, which were accepted by Guy Worth, who was described as a private representative for Burd.
The UFCW has pinpointed Burd as the primary roadblock among the top executives of Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger Co. to settling the labor dispute.
In a related development, Steve Westly, California's state controller, released the text of a letter he said he sent to members of Safeway's board of directors urging them to move "swiftly" to end the strike. "Extending the prolonged strike and lockout will only further erode your financial standing and brand image," he wrote.
Noting that Safeway claims it must cut health benefits to compete with large retailers such as Wal-Mart, which he said provide nominal health care benefits, Westly continued, "The lowest common denominator should not be the standard for an established member of the corporate community, and I'm surprised Safeway, given its strong reputation with millions of California consumers, would treat its employees in this manner."
Last week's march to Burd's home also included a prayer vigil. The event was organized by CLUE -- Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith association of 400 religious leaders -- which said it was hoping to appeal to Burd's faith to help influence his business decisions and change his point of view about the labor dispute.
Safeway officials did not return SN's phone calls for comment.
A day after the march in Northern California, a rally outside a Vons store in Long Beach, in Southern California, resulted in 15 arrests after demonstrators attempted to block traffic by laying down in the store's parking lot and refusing to disperse.
The union said it was scheduled over the weekend to hold the largest civil action yet in the strike-lockout -- a gathering of 10,000 grocery workers and national labor, community and religious leaders, who were set to hold a rally at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, followed by a march to a Vons store nearby.
The strike by the UFCW against Safeway began Oct. 11, 2003, and the lockout against employees of Albertsons and Kroger-owned Ralphs began the following day. There have been no formal bargaining sessions since late last year.
At issue are employer proposals to shift more of the cost of health care to union members and to introduce a two-tier wage system for new hires.
Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, Richmond, Va., told SN he doubts that prayer vigils and civil disobedience will have any influence on any of the chains.
"Those kinds of actions don't mean a lot," he said. "The general trend of business is flowing to non-union competitors, who deliver much lower pricing. If people were really that concerned with unionization issues, they wouldn't shop at non-union stores at all.
"But the fact consumers are shopping at non-union stores indicates they don't have a 'buy union' mentality. They don't prefer retailers that are unionized, and that probably isn't going to change," he said.