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American Stores supporting right of strawberry pickers to organize

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American Stores Co. will throw its support Friday behind a United Farm Workers campaign to improve conditions for California's 20,000 strawberry pickers.

Executives from the supermarket giant, based in Salt Lake City, and union officials were to hold a press conference Friday announcing that the company "endorses the right of strawberry workers to organize and bargain collectively," according to a press release from American.American Stores is one of the nation's largest food and drug retailers, operating 1,699 stores in 27 states. Its principal retail operations include Acme Markets, Jewell Food Stores, Lucky Northern California Division, Lucky Southern California Division, Jewel Osco Southwest, Osco Drug and Savon.

Neither the UFW nor American Stores would comment on their alliance.

But support from American would be a big coup for the union, which is mounting its most ambitious organizing drive in years in the strawberry fields.

The UFW has gathered similar endorsements recently from several other grocery chains, including Ralph's in Southern California.

The supermarket endorsements so far have been limited to very general statements of support for strawberry worker rights. The UFW has not called for a berry boycott, and no retailers have restricted their berry orders.

"There wouldn't be any direct economic impact on the strawberry growers, but it does have a big psychological impact," said Don Villarejo, director of the California Institute of Rural Studies in Davis.

California's strawberry workers earn an average of $6 an hour or $8,500 a season, producing 80 percent of all berries eaten in the United States.

The UFW launched a high-profile campaign to organize the whole strawberry industry last year, after union drives at several individual strawberry farms ended with the owners shutting them down and laying everyone off.

In seeking allies among the country's biggest supermarket chains, the UFW is taking a very different approach than it did in the past.

In the 1960s and 1970s, union-led boycotts of grapes and lettuce often painted supermarkets as the enemy. Now, the union is angling to get retailers on its side.

And the retailers seem eager to avoid repeating the battles of the 1960s and 1970s.

"Supermarkets are always concerned about their public image, and supporting the rights of strawberry workers is an easy way for them to get Brownie points," said Bruce Raabe, an analyst with Collins & Co. in San Francisco. "They're comfortable that if there's a price increase (due to unionization), it can easily be passed on to the consumer."