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Blood ran hot on the picket line, and I was about to get burned. Five Teamsters were in my face.
"Hey, bro, we got a strike going on here!"
"You a scab?" Shove. "Huh?" Shove. "You here for my job?"
One striker brandished a picket sign in one hand, a pastrami sandwich in the other.
"You know how it makes a father feel, he can't buy his little girl patent leather shoes? Buddy, it breaks my heart!"
Getting an interview had become secondary to not getting my ass kicked outside the employee entrance to the Fry's grocery warehouse on 99th Avenue. As loudly and quickly as I could, I explained I was a reporter, not a replacement worker, and gave out business cards like a blackjack dealer with a full table.
It was day 12 of the strike, which began one minute after midnight on Saturday, October 2 -- the exact hour a temporary labor agreement ran out between the International Brotherhood's Local 104 and Kroger Corporation, the Ohio-based supermarket conglomerate that owns Fry's.
Since then, Teamsters have picketed the food distribution center 24/7, and not without incident. Tolleson police chief Rick Patscheider told me last week his department had responded to more than 60 calls to the picket line, and made three arrests of replacement workers.
"We're overwhelmed just trying to keep the peace," he said.
Hours before I approached the picket line, one man coming on shift had pulled a gun when he was challenged at the gate. Another went to his trunk for a tire iron after Teamsters reportedly beat on his car with picket signs.
Security guards interceded in both confrontations, and there were no injuries. Undeterred, strikers continued to harass anyone entering or leaving the Fry's compound. When Al Gore breezed through the Valley last week on the eve of cementing an endorsement from the AFL-CIO, it's no wonder he visited with construction workers on the job in Phoenix, instead of strikers on the line in Tolleson. The Local 104 Teamsters behaved like pro-lifers outside a clinic. Except with better invectives.
"You wad-guzzling scab!" howled Matthew Stalter, he of the pastrami sandwich.
His target, a bald man trying to leave the warehouse, cringed behind the wheel as security guards herded picketers to both sides of his car.
Stalter fired away: "Pick up a sign, don't cross the line, you scummy bootlicker!"
A tattooed Teamster in his 20s taunted the driver through a bull horn: "Damn, you ugly! Look at all them scabs on your shiny head, scab!"
Stalter described the intimidation tactics as "totally justified."
"If somebody wants to go to work in a scab shop, he should be man enough to cross a picket line," he said.
The driver of a passing semi, en route to another Tolleson warehouse, yanked a blast from his truck's horn as he passed the picket line. Stalter rattled his sign in response.
"Hey, there goes a union man," he said.
I asked Stalter why he was on strike.
He walked over to a stone sign that said "Corporate Offices."
"Thieves and liars, man," he declared, pointing. "Thieves and liars."
"During Fiscal Year 1998, Kroger produced record financial results and initiated strategic actions directed toward increasing the size, scope and cash flow of our company," Pichler said.
Some of those actions led to the Teamsters strike in Tolleson.
For 25 years before Pichler's speech, there were two Fry's warehouses in the Valley. Both were in west Phoenix, and both were union shops. Teamsters got the food to Fry's shelves before Kroger bought the Fry's chain in 1981, and Teamsters got the food to the shelves thereafter.
The trouble started seven months ago, when Kroger purchased Fred Meyer Inc. for $11.8 billion. Eager to slash labor costs, Kroger immediately shut down its two Phoenix warehouses and consolidated Fry's distribution with Fred Meyer's distribution in the Tolleson facility. That warehouse, previously owned by Fred Meyer, was non-union.
Kroger laid off the entire work force at both Phoenix warehouses, from clerical workers to truck mechanics. Four hundred and fifty Teamsters were out of a job. (Last week, in a similar move, Kroger announced it was pink-slipping all 88 employees at its Jackson and Company dairy in Phoenix, which will close in November, when Kroger moves its dairy operations to a former Fred Meyer dairy in Tolleson.)
Under union pressure (the Teamsters represent workers at Kroger facilities across the country), Kroger agreed to hire back 207 of the Fry's warehouse Teamsters to jobs in Tolleson, but for less pay and diluted benefits.
(Kroger is hardly destitute. The company recently announced that its acquisition of Fred Meyer will boost profits $225 million in 1999. I called Pichler five times last week to ask him how much fruit from the money tree he plans to pass on to consumers, since apparently none of it's going to reward the Phoenix laborers who helped build the Kroger empire. I'm still waiting to hear back from him.)
Under the terms of their Tolleson employment, as laid out in the temporary contract, the Teamsters lost their base pay guarantee of $16.85 an hour. Their wages were cut $4 an hour, across the board. They lost their guarantee of a 40-hour workweek with two consecutive days off. They lost their pension and health plans, which Kroger refused to pay into.