Vons' strike hits home hard
By Jesse Phelps
He really didn't have to do this.
But then again, if you ask him, he did.
Tim Austin is a familiar face to many Ojai residents. For the
past 12 years, he's been the guy that checks out your groceries
during the late shift at Vons. But he's been on the job for 30
years total, having begun in Montecito after graduating from
UCSB. By 10 hours of accrued vacation, he was able to retire
as the strike hit but that hasn't stopped him from picketing.
Why? For one thing, his wife - who he met on the job, a common
occurrence according to Austin - has longer to go before her
retirement from the Ventura store. The couple has two grown children
and two still living with them at home in Ojai. One attends Montessori
and the other is a special needs student at Mira Monte School.
Having been on the job so long, Austin, unlike many of the other
strikers, has some interesting perspectives. For one thing, he
said, he isn't interested in blowing the horn of the union too
much. He said that the representatives are doing what they can
but that the Ojai strikers don't see them as much as they'd like.
Plus, the union's representatives have not trained the strikers
in how to be most effective. "The union has not informed
us about the issues so we can relate that on the front line to
the customers," said Austin. "The union has done a
lousy job of informing us and a lousy job educating the public."
If it sounds like he speaks from experience, it's because Austin
has been here before. Unlike many of the strikers, he said, he
was on the line the last time a strike was called, some 25 years
ago. "A lot of these people haven't been here that long,"
he said. "They're not familiar with labor disputes, they're
not familiar with how to walk the line," he said.
As such, he's taken it upon himself to train them, not in the
law, which the union took care to articulate, but in how to be
effective. "This is part of having a union job," he
said. "It's an endurance test. The workers have to unite.
The (market's executives) want to get rid of these second-income,
middle-income jobs. I've raised four kids on this job.
"I have a different perspective. When I struck 25 years
ago, there was no defense fund (to pay a stipend to strikers).
We were on strike for our jobs. But I was lucky because it was
short," said Austin.
He said he's not worried that the current dispute is dragging
on so long, but knows his fellow strikers need encouragement.
"Negotiations are intermittent. That's because the strategy
of the corporate guys is not to negotiate, it's to outlast us,"
said Austin. "They're counting picketers, they're counting
customers, they're counting the people that decide to go back
to work, although nobody at (the Ojai) store, that I know of,
has done that."
He sais that, so far, the Ojai workers are standing firm, with
an assist from the community. "It's been a good 10 weeks
because the community is behind these guys," said Austin.
"For the most part people respect us as individuals and
that's important. But a lot of people don't know the issues.
The strike is about saving these jobs. They want to bring in
low-wage new hires."
Regardless of the outcome, no one should worry about the markets,
said Austin. "Their profits are up 90 percent over the last
five years. They make lots of money," he said.
From his perspective, the strike could be seen as a result of
poor business judgements.
In fact, the entire labor contract could have been paid for,
he contends, from money lost through some bad acquisitions and
mergers negotiated by Safeway president Steve Byrd.
"The marketing strategy of Safeway is to buy these small
chains," he explained. "It hasn't worked out real well.
The loans for these buyouts are coming due in 2004 and 2005."
Austin is more concerned for his fellow strikers and said a percentage
of have already drifted away into other available jobs. Most,
he said, in fact have second jobs so they can support themselves
during the protracted negotiations. "They've got to survive
and they picket when they can," said Austin.
In response to complaints from some in the community that have
crossed the line, saying that the strikers have acted inappropriately,
Austin said that he hasn't seen it and doesn't believe it.
"These are not longshoremen, these are people people,"
he said. "Most of these people are tired of being here and
they don't know what to say. So they come out here and they hold
a picket sign."
Austin said other people in the community have expressed concern
that the strikers won't be able to afford Christmas presents
for their kids. One child even designed some boxes to hold donations.
"We've gotten donations for individuals," he said.
"We had a customer come up and tell us that her daughter
wanted to make a donation. We told her, rather than donate, to
have her daughter make some boxes for us and decorate them."
The boxes now sit out front of the store with Austin and the
rest of the old Vons crew. Meanwhile, their kids continue to
go to school, hoping that their parents lives, and their own,
will return to normal soon.
The Ojai Valley News
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AUSTIN, despite having reached retirement, still walks the picket