Mesa resident Cathy Hounshell says she has been a Fry's customer "since there was a Fry's."
She thinks it's terrible that workers at her favorite store could walk out on strike at 6 p.m. Friday.
"I feel so sorry for these people with the recession on and going into the holidays," she said. "This is horrible timing for them."
But Hounshell and other customers of Fry's Food Stores and Safeway Stores face the likely prospect the companies will be hit by a strike organized by Local 99 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents about 25,000 clerks, baggers, stockers and other Arizona employees of the two chains.
After more than a year of negotiations, the companies and union have been unable to reach agreement on several issues, but especially about paying for workers' health care benefits. The union wants the company to continue to pay all of the insurance premiums while the stores want newly hired employees to start contributing $5 to $15 a week to help cover those costs.
The union has set the Friday night strike deadline if no agreement is reached. As of Thursday, no new talks were scheduled, and the two companies have been hiring temporary workers to keep stores operating if UFCW members walk out.
Union representatives say UFCW members are united in support of the strike, but random conversations by Tribune reporters with employees while shopping in the stores indicate that many are not happy about the prospect of a strike. And hundreds of workers gathered on two occasions in Phoenix during the past week to demonstrate against the strike.
Also the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union group, said it has received "numerous" calls from Fry's and Safeway employees seeking legal advice on their rights if they want to keep working.
As a right-to-work state, employees have the right to go to work even if the union is on strike, the foundation said. But if they continue working, they must first resign from the union to avoid any union disciplinary actions and fines, the group said.
UFCW members authorized the strike in September, but anti-strike members say there should be a new vote. The UFCW has rejected that as a stalling tactic that would delay a strike until after the holidays - the busiest time of the year for the grocery companies.
The union has several options on how to proceed. It could picket some stores but not others. It could call a strike against both of the companies or against just one.
In the latter event, the two companies have reached an agreement in which the chain that is not struck will lock out its workers so that one will not gain a competitive advantage over the other.
Safeway spokeswoman Cathy Kloos said necessary steps have been taken to continue running, and all stores are expected to remain open.
"We are prepared for the worst," she said.
Kloos said the company is continuing to hire replacement workers and is bringing in managers from across the United States to help operate the stores. Also she said a large number of employees are expected to continue to work.
However, if there's a lockout, only replacement workers and managers will be allowed to operate the stores, she said.
UFCW spokeswoman Ellen Anreder declined to tip the union's hand, only saying that "we are examining all sorts of options."
But she expressed confidence the membership is solidly behind UFCW leaders. At a strike-organizing meeting Wednesday in Phoenix, which she said was attended by about 1,000 members, "our president had a hard time finishing his sentences during his speech because he was being interrupted so often by applause."
At the meeting signs were distributed and picket captains received their assignments, she said.
"I can't say what will happen at 6:01 (Friday), but I hope if there are picket lines, customers will help us in our fight for health care," she said.
The situation thus presents customers with a need to make their own choice: whether to support the unionized workers and shop elsewhere or cross the picket line and continue to buy groceries at their familiar store.
Customers interviewed by the Tribune at Fry's Marketplace at McKellips and Stapley Drive expressed varying opinions.
Mesa resident Rich Cook said he would continue to shop at the store if a strike happens.
"I feel this way about the unions," he said as he held out his hand palm down and wagged it from side to side. "Unions are necessary, but sometimes they get too strong. In this case, I think they're too strong."
Toni Thomas, another Mesa resident was even more emphatic, saying employees should not be forced to strike if they don't want to.
"I feel bad for them," she said. "It's not the employees who want to go out on strike. It's the union bosses."
Kate Richards, who works as a school bus driver, said she would not cross a picket line even though she likes to visit Fry's every day for lunch.
"I'm from Northern California, and I'm spoiled on the benefits we had there," she said. "The benefits here are not what they are there, and it hurt my pocketbook."
Mesa resident Denise Bohn was unsure what she would do, saying it would depend on the size and feel of any demonstrations the union might organize at the stores.
"If just a few people were picketing, I would go in. But if there was a big mob, I might think twice," she said.
Despite her willingness to cross a picket line, she said she's not anti-union.
"Unions have their place. If you stand up for what you believe in, I'm OK with that."
Outside a crowded Fry's store at Warner and Val Vista Drive, Gilbert resident Morgan Doyle said he would not shop at either Fry's or Safeway in the event of a strike.
"I have a friend, and her father works for Safeway as a unionized worker," said Doyle, who noted that a few years ago the company promised unionized employees a pay and benefits increase. "Now the company is trying to back out because of the economy."
At a Chandler Safeway store, the father of a Fry's employee who would only give his first name, Tim, said "I don't really see the purpose of the strike. I think the union overstepped the line."
He said he would just shop elsewhere if his neighborhood store closed because of a strike.
Tribune reporter Andre Bowser contributed to this report.