Picketers outside the warehouse on 99th Avenue.
Picketers outside the warehouse on 99th Avenue.
Paolo Vescia

Freddy Kroger

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."

The morning of May 20, Kroger Corporation CEO Joe Pichler approached the dais inside the ballroom of Cincinnati's Regal Hotel. He was addressing the annual meeting of Kroger stockholders.

"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.

The Teamsters also lost their seniority. Union guys who had worked in the Fry's warehouse on 59th Avenue for 20 years found themselves lower on the totem pole than non-union guys who have worked in Tolleson for two.

Stalter, 37, drove a pallet jack for seven years at the old Fry's warehouse.

"If I come out here, and there's a guy who worked here for eight years, I'll fall below him, because that's the right thing to do," Stalter says.

"But when I come out here, and there's some guy been here one year, and he gets to pick his work assignments before me, and he gets to pick his vacations before me, I have a problem with that."

So do the Teamsters.

On 13 occasions in six months, Local 104 negotiators met with Kroger, asking for better terms on a long-term contract. The Teamsters came away 0-13 and called a strike.

Then Kroger got crafty.

On September 30 -- two days before the strike hit -- Kroger announced the sale of its Tolleson distribution center to Central Services Integrated, a New Jersey-based subsidiary of Security Capital Industries (stick close to me here; multinational conglomerates are labyrinthine on purpose).

Security Capital Industries, or SCI, handles storage and global distribution for Nike, Xerox and FedEx, among others. SCI is also a major player in the Mexican maquiladora industry -- assembly plants where Mexican workers earn a few dollars a day.

Kroger likes to shuffle the shells of ownership when a labor force gets restless. Six times in recent years, Kroger sold a distribution center, either right after a union contract expired, right before a union went on strike, or both. Three of those seven times -- in Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Roanoke, Virginia -- Kroger's buyer was Security Capital Industries.

Dogging the paper trail is of little interest to Stalter.

"Kroger says, 'You're not on strike against us, now, you're on strike against CSI, who's really SCI, just like Fry's and Fred Meyer's are really Kroger," he said. "So, if you go back to work, you won't be working for Kroger anymore, you'll be working for CSI.

"Well, all we know is we're doin' the same damn job, and the orders are goin' to the same damn place, except now we're getting screwed. It's bullshit. Kroger, SCI, CSI, it's all the same damn people. No one out here is fooled."

The white pickup parked outside the Local 104 office sports matching rear window decals of the ubiquitous winking, pissing Calvin. Only this Calvin isn't relieving himself on a Ford or Chevy logo. He's pissing on the word "Scabs."

Inside the building on 27th Avenue near Buckeye Road, Local 104 president Cliff Davis greets me in a Teamsters shirt bearing the image of a cigar-chomping bulldog in sunglasses. Paws crossed, it stands defiantly in front of a globe.

"It's a Dog Eat Dog world," the shirt says.

At this point in the strike, Davis says, it's hard to tell how acutely Fry's/CSI is feeling the union's bite. Two weeks into the strike, the Teamsters have received no word from their opponents.

"No phone call, nothing," Davis says. "We're not worried. "We have a $1 million strike fund, and we're firmly entrenched in our position."

CSI has overstaffed the Tolleson warehouse with temporary laborers who are earning more than the Teamsters they replaced. CSI and Fry's say there has been no disruption of service. The Teamsters say that's not true.

"Loads are getting to the stores six, seven hours late," says Davis. "It's going to be a cumulative effect. The guys they have in there now can't do the jobs as well as our guys. All we have to do is keep the pressure up."

Last week, the Teamsters distributed 170,000 boycott leaflets in Fry's parking lots, churches, the State Fair and sports events. The fliers show a dragon busting through the front glass of a Fry's store. Terrified shoppers flee the beast's menace.

"We want people to know what the hell's going on," Davis says. "We want them to know it's not their friendly neighborhood Fry's anymore."

Nor has it been since Kroger bought the Fry's chain 18 years ago. Then, if Kroger thought it could profit by laying off Teamsters, it would have. It just took this long before it became economically viable -- from a capitalist pig's perspective -- for Kroger to bust up the union shops and move operations to a non-union shop next door.

But if Local 104's boycott flier seems like a page torn from a 1960s playbook, it's because the Tolleson Teamsters strike is an old-school labor conflict -- a remnant from a time before you could buy an American flag stamped "Made in China."

There are millions of men in Mexico who would weep and thank God for deliverance were they to be hired into the same $13-an-hour job Matthew Stalter walked away from in disgust. Except Kroger wouldn't pay these men $13 an hour. It would pay them whatever it could get away with -- four dollars, maybe three -- so the dragon's horde could grow fatter, and CEO Pichler could speak to stockholders not of soulless exploitation, but "strategic action."

But Kroger can't do that. Because it sells groceries instead of computer chips, garage door openers or Beanie Babies, Kroger can't move its labor force to Mexico, or Indonesia, or El Salvador, or Bangladesh, or any other place where sweat comes cheap, and the authorities are known to shoot foul-mouthed picketers outside the company gates.

So we have a good seat for the Tolleson strike because the local union has a tangible target to strike against. We've even been asked by the Teamsters to participate by refusing to spend our money at Fry's.

So, we have a decision to make. Do we side with the strikers, or with Pichler and his anonymous Kroger underlings?

Ask yourself this: Whom do you like more, and whom are you more like?

And remember -- it's not a boycott. It's a strategic action.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com


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