Business & Economy

The last of the unionized, independent grocery stores in LA

Super A night manager, Hector Reyes, chats with a customer at the check out.
Super A night manager, Hector Reyes, chats with a customer at the check out.
Shereen Meraji/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

You might remember the labor dispute that crippled Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons eight years ago. This summer, the “Big 3” are in the middle of another tense round of contract talks with union workers. It’s tougher this time in part because small independent supermarkets have snatched away customers from the “Big 3.”

One of those independents is Super A, which has been in the Glassell park neighborhood for 30 years. Super A has an old-timey feel, from the retro sign out front to the short shelves with products neatly stacked. The store caters to a Latino clientele from the neighborhood – and boasts freshly made tortillas and a carnicería.

An older customer – a regular – sits, hunched over, on a shelf in front of the meat counter, looking over her grocery list. She asks Manny Ortiz, the store director, if she can take a seat somewhere. He says he will bring her a bench. Ortiz tells his employees to treat customers like their moms. He says it’s one way to compete with the non-union chains. His store averages between 12,000 and 15,000 customers a week – less than half what the nearby, independent and non-unionized Super King draws in.

“It’s rough, especially with the prices, non-union versus union,” says Ortiz. “We can still beat Ralphs, but the other guys, you know…it’s a little tougher,” he adds.

Jim Amen is the president of Super A Foods and chairman of the California Grocers Association.

His family business was one of the first to recognize the buying power in Latino neighborhoods. That was 40 years ago when everyone was in the union. Now his 13 markets are competing with El Super, Superior and up-and-comers like the nearby Super King in those neighborhoods – and he’s losing.

Amen says he’s not speaking as thechairman of the California Grocer’s Association but on behalf of Super A Foods.

“It’s tough, because my average wage including fringe benefits is about $30 an hour, whereas Superior would probably be about $15 an hour,” Amen says.

He adds that he’s at a huge disadvantage, along with Ralphs, Albertons and Vons. Amen says that a lot of these grocery stores “…do not have a big presence in the Latino market.”

Victoria De Leon has shopped at the Glassell Park Super A for 30 years. But she’s added Superior and Super King to her list of favorites. Victoria recalls flyers from Super A, Ralphs and Vons that told people to stop shopping at Super King because it’s non-union.

De Leon says it’s not important if the store is unionized – what mattes to her are the prices. She adds that unions can help workers with better pay and health insurance, but what people need now are jobs. De Leon says that between being paid nothing or a little, a little is better.

The nearby Super King employs 700 workers. It’s opening a new store in Claremont – its fourth – and adding 150 more jobs. Cashiers there are non-union. They make up to $12 an hour, but only management gets health benefits.

The union cashiers at Super A can make up to $17.80 an hour with benefits and a pension. But Amen says that if he could do it over again, he wouldn’t be in the union.

“When we started, everybody was union so we had to be union,” Amen says. He adds that over the years, most of the grocery stores sold in Los Angeles, particularly in Hispanic neighborhoods, are non-union.

Amen says he sees the independent, non-union grocers getting stronger while the “Big 3” – Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons – retreat to upscale neighborhoods.

As for a strike or lockout at the “Big 3,” De Leon and other Glassell Park shoppers say it wouldn’t affect them one bit. They have plenty of grocery stores — fully stocked with the products and prices they like.

This is the fourth part of a five-part series. For months, Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons have been chipping away at a new contract with the union for grocery store workers. Sometimes, the talks get nasty enough to raise the specter of the “Big Three” labor dispute of 2003, when 70,000 grocery store workers stopped working for four months. In the end, the workers kept jobs but lost pay. The stores won a new pay scale but lost customers. Eight years later, a repeat of that dispute could be a disaster for the supermarkets and their workers. We’ll look at why this week.