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Look for the Union Label

On strike with Ralphs in California.

11:00 PM, Nov 2, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
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THE STRIKE HAS BEEN ON for about a month with no sign of letting up. On the first day management said, "We are not speaking. That is our only offer." And they haven't, and it is. The first week the public was with the strikers, and all the parking lots looked empty, and cars honked their horns in support as they passed the cheering strikers. The second week, people began to get tired of honking. The third week a few began to cross the line and shop. No one is going hungry in California for lack of places to buy food, and there are plenty of other stores, but I guess it's the same old story: It's just easier to stop caring. The fourth week a little more. This week, too. And the companies are offering some astonishing bargains to lure people in.

Each time we passed and honked, the kids asked why we couldn't go in, so we told them. I said everyone who worked there had gotten something from the company, and the company wants to take it back, and we agreed with the people who worked there, and not going into the store helps them.

There's a more important reason, though, or at least a more personal one. I do most of the shopping for the family. (I don't know how this happened, by the way. I don't even know when it happened, but that's the way it is, and doing the marketing is now as much a part of my job description as taking out the garbage and killing spiders.)

I've been in that Ralphs twice a week for the past ten years, and I know the people who work there. I knew when Mary got married and had her first kid. A nice guy with a mustache named Chris sometimes tells me a joke, and I laugh no matter what it is, and I forgot my wallet a couple of times and the manager smiled and said, "Oh, just bring it on your next visit." Audra recently got promoted. She exchanged some eggs for me once when they were cracked, and we've laughed many times about how easy it is to be forgetful at the end of the day. There's a cashier with the prettiest smile in the world, and I always look for her, and a slightly built lady who's a little disabled, and we chat every time as she bags, and she loves working there very, very much.

Even the ones I've never said a word to I feel I know a little, but it doesn't end there. My wife and kids and I are a Ralphs family in extremis, and we intimately know every store up and down Ventura Boulevard from "Elevator" Ralphs (Vineland) to "Brown" Ralphs (Coldwater) to "Earthquake" Ralphs (Hazeltine) to "Fancy" Ralphs (Encino). We actually have discussions on the weekend about which one we feel like going to. (Some exciting life we lead, eh?)

It's weird, though: I'm so deeply bound to the one down the street from us--"Home Base" Ralphs--that when I go to one of the others, I feel like I'm cheating. I've been there so often I'm still not sure they made the right decision three years ago when they moved the butter. I knew which hours were better to find the right diapers when the kids were little, and I certainly hope to apply that knowledge when I need diapers myself, which I expect in as little as a month.

So the Sunday before last, over coffee I told my wife I was thinking of walking with the strikers, and she kissed me and said, "You're right." (Which is something I wish I had on tape, since it's never happened before. Drat.) So we put the kids in the car and went over. She had to take the older one to a birthday party with a horse, so the little one stayed with me. They gave us sodas and signs, and thanked us, and we walked. My wife came back after the party, and we all walked.

I tried to pretend it was nothing when people drove in and gave us the finger, but I think the kids saw, and they marveled at the eggs that had been thrown and wondered how the yolks dried so fast on the pavement. A science experiment, one of them said. Yeah. There was some cursing from cars, and I decided it was time to take them home to lunch and cartoons. How could people be that angry at strikers? Of course, maybe they're not. Maybe they're that angry at themselves.

I think management is going to win. The MTA mechanics went on strike at the same time (I disagree with that one) and took a lot of attention away from Ralphs. Then the horrible fires hit up and down the state, just a few miles away from everyone, and that tragedy will long eclipse everything else in the press. Time will pass, and more and more people will say, oh, the heck with it, and cross the line. We won't, but that's the way I feel. Eventually, win or lose, the strikers will go back in, and then, I guess, we will, too.

I wonder if that cashier's smile will be the same?