With thousands of grocery workers walking off their jobs at Raley's and Nob Hill stores in a bitter dispute over wages and benefits on Sunday, pickets successfully turned away many shoppers at stores from Gilroy to South Lake Tahoe, throughout the Bay Area and elsewhere in Northern California.
The strike by the union representing 7,500 workers began Sunday morning after the company unilaterally imposed new terms -- after 15 months of failed negotiations. The Sacramento-based company declares it needs to cut costs due to the heightened competition in the grocery business. Union members, conversely, say they're determined to at least keep current contract terms and not go backward.
"We are not asking for any raises," said Stan Cooper, who's worked as a butcher at Raley's and Nob Hill for 31 years and was picketing the Campbell Nob Hill on Sunday afternoon. "We're working on keeping our current health and welfare benefits."
So deep is the division that Raley's and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5 could not even agree on what the sticking points of negotiations are or on what the company's final offer is.
If the effect of the strike on business at the Campbell store was any indication, many shoppers sympathize with the workers. Passing motorists and drivers in the parking lot honked their horns or gave numerous thumbs-up signs in support. Inside the sprawling store on West Campbell Avenue and San Tomas Aquino Road, check-out lines were non-existent.
"We are going to shop somewhere else until this is over," said Mike Lamica of Saratoga, who with his wife, Debby, didn't even park their car when they spotted pickets. Normally, they shop at the Campbell Nob Hill every Sunday.
They love the Raley's stores, known for many qualities, including their tall, accommodating grocery baskets. But Debby Lamica said she also appreciates the whole shopping experience. "The people are really friendly," she said, "the products are good and the prices are good."
Apologetic shoppers who hurried past the line of pickets explained that they had to pick up a cake, that they just needed a particular item or they didn't have time to shop elsewhere.
Virginia Cherf was buying ice cream and sugar cones that she said no other store carried. Despite living in Los Gatos, Cherf said she loves to shop at the Campbell Nob Hill because of the produce and the prices.
The strike affects 90 of the company's 120 Raley's, Nob Hill and Bel Air markets in Northern California and Nevada, including 15 in the East Bay and nine on the Peninsula and in the South Bay.
Founded in 1935 in Placerville, Raley's claims it opened the first self-service meat counter with pre-packaged meat in 1947. The grocery chain says it was among the first in the nation to open a supermarket-drug store "superstore" in 1974, to open its own warehouse store and to offer an online shopping service that features a drive-up delivery to customers' cars. They say they were also among the first to add gas stations at markets.
Local 5 members said they worry the privately owned company is trying to cut back health benefits for workers and retirees.
"I'm fighting for my benefits," said deli clerk Sonia Khoury, who began picketing at 9:30 a.m. Sunday and planned to stay until 7 p.m.
A company spokesman said that workers were being misinformed, that the imposed terms do not affect health benefits.
Raley's needs to cut costs, spokesman John Segale said. "We're facing severe competition." Since 2008, when the last contract with the clerks union was adopted, more than 240 non-union stores -- like Walmart, Target and Whole Foods -- have opened or expanded, he said. Raley's imposed contract will freeze pay increases for two years and eliminate premium pay for Sundays and holidays, he said -- although Sunday shifts will still pay double time. He said the company made its last best offer four weeks ago. Receiving no response from the union and after talks with a federal mediator failed, he said, Raley's unilaterally imposed the new pay terms on Sunday.
"We're frustrated that they've gone on strike," Segale said. The company only wants the union to put the offer to a vote by the membership, which the union has refused.
That's not so, Local 5 spokesman Ron Lind said. "This is an unfair labor practices strike," he said. "The company is bargaining in bad faith, intimidating and interrogating members." He said that the union also objects to an inferior benefits plan that -- while not yet part of the imposed contract -- would be administered by the company, rather than jointly with the union.
"We are not at impasse," Lind said. The union didn't put the company's final offer to a vote because it's worse than what was offered in the summer, when members authorized a strike.
Segale said the clerks' union rejected what other Raley's workers, including those in other unions, have accepted.
One thing both sides seemed to agree on: They love the store and their work.
"It's a great company," said Campbell deli manager Ida Ghanim, picketing her store. "I enjoy my job. We do customer service because we enjoy it."
And the two sides agree on something else. As Cooper said, "We all want to get back to work."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.