Southern California Striking Out

Near a sign advertising for temporary strike replacement workers, a shopper wheels a cart full of groceries out of a Ralphs supermarket in Santa Monica, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003.
Labor disputes struck hard across Southern California, leaving hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded, grocery shoppers inconvenienced and county jails and courts threatened with closure.

The strike launched Tuesday against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority stalled the nation's third-largest mass-transit system. Some 2,000 MTA mechanics walked out, with another 6,000 bus drivers and clerks honoring the mechanics' picket lines.

"I'm just stranded," said commuter David Strattling, 59, who made it to Union Station on a bus line not affected by the strike before realizing he couldn't go any farther. "I won't be able to go to work today."

Meanwhile, 70,000 grocery clerks from three chains — Kroger Co.'s Ralphs, Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Albertsons Inc. — began their third day on the picket lines in Southern and Central California with no sign of a new contract.

In another dispute, several Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, who provide security at county courts and jails, called in sick, as union members have done in spurts over the past three weeks in protest over stalled labor talks.

About 50 police officers in Corona, Calif., called in sick Tuesday as part of a job action to protest proposed budget cuts in retirement and benefits packages.

Police say almost every officer below the rank of lieutenant called in sick as part of the "blue flu."

The city says it is seeking a court injunction to make the officers go back to work.

Corona police officers have been without a contract since July, but Mayor Jeffrey Bennett said state budget cuts make police concessions necessary.

Officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department were called to help patrol the city during the job action.

The transit and grocery clerks strikes could deal a blow to the ailing California economy. Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., estimated the transit strike could cost $4 million a day while the toll from the supermarket walkout could reach $6.3 million a day in lost wages.

"Those in both disputes are digging in their heels. And the common thread here is health benefits," Kyser said.

The grocery clerks' strike was forcing consumers to shop elsewhere or cross picket lines at more than 850 supermarkets from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. The chains have coped by bringing in replacement workers and scaling back operating hours.

A member of the grocery clerks union and a replacement worker were both hospitalized after a scuffle Tuesday outside an Albertson's in Northwest Bakersfield.

According to the Kern County Sheriff's Department, both parties were juveniles and neither was charged.

More than a dozen transit lines, including Metrolink commuter rail and various regional bus lines, were operating as scheduled. But the half-million people estimated to use the MTA's train and bus system every day had to scramble for alternatives to get to work, school or other destinations.

The freeways were more jammed than usual. Some drivers took advantage of the situation by offering to provide rides for more than $20.

Access Services, a nonprofit company funded by the MTA, faced extra demand for its fleet of 484 vehicles, said executive director Alan Cantrell. The company provides transportation for people covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, including people who are blind or deaf.

"Our phone services are maxed out," Cantrell said.

Callers flooded MTA phone lines with complaints. The agency was trying to get contract bus operators to provide service, but officials conceded it wouldn't help much overall.

"Obviously, we can't replicate the metro service," said Marc Littman, an MTA spokesman.

Glenn Rosales, an MTA mechanic on a picket line outside the county bus yard, regretted the inconvenience but said he and his colleagues had no choice about going on strike.

"I'm not making any money, and they're stranded. It hurts us both ways," said Rosales, 40.

It was the second time in three years that a strike halted the county transit system. A walkout in 2000 shut down the MTA's bus, subway and commuter train service for 32 days.

Transit mechanics want the MTA to make larger contributions to the union's health care trust fund, which an independent audit found was being mismanaged.