With the grocery workers’ strike well into its fourth week, the union for checkers and baggers has lifted its picket lines from Ralphs stores.

Union members stopped picketing there on Oct. 31 at noon. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) said it hopes it will be able to negotiate a separate contract at Ralphs and that Vons and Albertsons may soon follow, said Ray Molina, picket captain and 12-year employee at the Calle Real Albertsons. Molina said focusing the strike on two stores would make it more effective.

“Three corporate stores – that’s a pretty big giant to knock down,” Molina said.

Lilia Rodriguez, representative for the Southern California region of Albertsons Inc., said the union’s “divide and conquer” strategy is not going to work.

Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons released a joint statement on Oct. 31 regarding the strike.

“The employers remain united in the belief that they have made a very good contract offer,” the release said. “[The contract includes] some of the best health benefits in the country and some of the highest retail wages in Southern California.”

The corporations claim they have offered to increase their contribution to an average of $932 per month for health care benefits for each current full-time employee. According to a press release from the stores, this is nearly 70 percent more than the national average for healthcare benefits.

According to UFCW, the corporations want employees to share a “reasonable” portion of health care costs: $5 per week for individuals and $15 for families. The union said the corporations “want to increase co-payments, institute deductibles and place caps on payments for prescriptions and surgeries. This amounts to a 50 percent cut in medical benefits that would shift almost a billion dollars in health care costs onto the workers over the term of the contract.”

Molina said that by the end of next week, Albertson’s will have lost $170 million in revenue since the strike began. Rodriguez said the company does not “break out numbers.”

Steven Burd, CEO of Safeway, Inc., which owns Vons, said the corporation sees the strike as an investment. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, Burd said in a conference call with a claque of Wall Street analysts that yielding to the union’s demands could cost Safeway as much as $130 million over a three-year period.

“The amount of revenue lost over the strike would be infinitesimal compared to the cost of not doing this,” Burd said in the call.

Molina described Burd as a “corporate antagonizer.”

“The guy’s a nut,” Molina said. “He’d burn the place to the ground to get his way.”

William Giles, a junior at San Marcos High School, said he has been working at the Calle Real Albertsons for about a year and a half and has been picketing since the strike began.

“Some of [the strikers] are looking for new jobs,” Giles said. “They told us the strike could go until Christmas.”

Picket leaders and captains schedule the picketers, Giles said.

“We have some people with kids who come out and do night shifts, like 1:30, 3:00 in the morning,” Giles said.

The union has paid picketers for their time on the picket line, Giles said.

“For 30 hours we get $200,” Giles said.

Joyce Lopez, a Goleta resident and UCSB Parking Services employee, returned to Ralphs today for the first time since the strike began.

“I’ve been doing most of my shopping at Trader Joe’s and Scolari’s on Milpas,” Lopez said. “Even though it’s more expensive, we’ve respected the picketers.”