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January 2004 • Vol 4, No. 1 •

The Grocery Strike and the Left

By Charles Walker

Grocery workers picket outside of a Vons in Southern California

Not surprisingly, union militants and labor radicals of various stripes have rallied to the cause of some 70,000 striking and locked-out Southern California supermarket workers. Their help has mostly been of two types: solidarity support for the food workers union’s picket lines and largely solidarity articles and commentaries in many print publications and online sites. No doubt thousands of union militants across the nation are up to date on the issues at stake—primarily the maintenance of hard-won healthcare benefits—because of the extensive and constant coverage the workers’ struggles have received since day one of the strike/lockout, October 11.

Vigorous solidarity with workers struggling here or abroad is a proud hallmark of the American left. But while there can be no question that the militants and radicals are carrying on a righteous tradition and are well intentioned in their efforts, the question should be asked if their combined efforts on the grocery workers’ picket lines or in their left publications will count for much in the outcome of the strikers’ battle, which has broad and quite serious implications for many workers, in or out of the supermarket chain-store industry.

Without a doubt the organized forces arrayed against the strikers are formidable. To date the three food chains have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and have spent untold millions of dollars to finance their war to reduce their labor costs over the long haul. Yet they seem prepared to spend much more to gain their ends. And why not? If the supermarket chains win in Southern California, they probably expect to roll over their national workforce as other contracts are renegotiated. And they probably expect to do that without further serious “labor disruptions”—if they can defeat the workers in this strike. If we’re right about the grocery moguls’ expectations, then their costs are an investment that could pay big dividends for many years to come.

Meanwhile, the California state government has refused to pay unemployment benefits to the locked-out workers from Albertsons and Ralphs. Neither of those stores, or Safeway either, have even been investigated under California’s law barring the hiring of professional scabs. While some California politicians have appeared at strikers’ rallies, it can be safely predicted that their support will not be any more substantial than their cosmetic support to the ILWU dockworkers, forced backed to work earlier this year under the Taft-Hartley Act.

Furthermore, the strikers’ opponents are not limited to the corporations and their political guardians in the Democratic and Republican parties. Within the union officialdom of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is a dominant sector that to date has managed to confine the strikers’ efforts to the geographical area that the chains have chosen to fight on. The so-called strategists from the union’s leadership have tailored their battle plan to match that of the national supermarket chains, not to hit the workers’ corporate enemies in unexpected ways or places.

The union tops’ strategic narrow focus on piecemeal and incremental steps derives from their more fundamental concern for maintaining the grocery chains’ profitability, a misleadership concern that permeates organized labor’s officialdom as a whole—since the bureaucratic officialdom has no alternative to the corporate-profit system that dominates American life from cradle to grave. This was implied by labor analyst Harry Kelber, who rightly noted: “The UFCW has been much too timid in battling the chains, partly because it doesn’t want to hurt them to the point where they will feel justified in making mass layoffs after an eventual agreement is reached…Union leaders worry that if the three supermarket chains are seriously weakened, they will be easy prey for Wal-Mart, which is planning to open some 40 Supercenters in California in the next five years.” Kelber also noted that the union’s strategy has meant “‘business as usual’ for both managers and employees in most Safeway stores [and Ralphs and Krogers] around the country.”

If the workers face terrible odds, given their many open and not-so-open opponents, the same also can be said for the union militants and labor radicals who seek to help and yearn to see the workers come out on top. For all their strivings to help the grocery workers, the truth is that the militants are handicapped by their own inability to present to the workers’ many opponents a united front defending the workers’ interests. Their weaknesses are magnified by their own disorganization, or organization into smallish groups without the critical mass to do more than show up at a picket line or publish articles. Certainly, they lack the critical mass to do what they could do if they followed their own injunction and got organized.

Today’s labor activists and militants can expect that whatever help they bring to the grocery workers, though appreciated, will be no more than a memory, once the strike is ended. That comes to mind because to a large extent that’s what happened in the meatpacking industry, after the UFCW officialdom broke the ranks’ opposition to its efforts to keep the corporate meatpacking corporations profitable at the expense of some of the best wages, benefits, and working conditions in any comparable industry.

If there now were an organized “labor-left,” it could bring to the attention of the grocery workers the lessons of the downfall of the meatpacking sector and the obvious pitfalls of similar strategies of the UFCW officialdom and their counterparts throughout the labor movement. Moreover, it could gain a widespread reputation over time as it became a growing attractive force for workers somewhat radicalized in the course of their specific battles.

In the 1920s there was a “labor-left” in this country that was organized as the Trade Union Educational League. In the 1930s its best elements became part of the rising CIO. But before then, the league gained the respect of tens of thousands of workers as it helped workers win some significant battles for union recognition and labor rights.

Helping out with solidarity in ad hoc battles can’t possibly lead to an organized rank and file opposition based on militancy and democracy unless it is conducted by an organized force, a “labor-left” united into a mass critical enough to attract union ranks, yet not necessarily in agreement on all matters. Without an organized “labor-left” on the scene, solidarity actions, while well-intentioned, are not going to be a serious factor in the outcome of the grocery chain beef—or any other.

Union misleaders’ strategy undermines grocery strike

On December 19, 2003, negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), representing 70,000 Southern California strikers, announced that that very day they had offered $350 million in concessions in health care costs over three years to settle the strike/lockout involving three major grocery chains, but the chains rejected the offer. The offered concessions fell short of the $1 billion in health care reductions that, according to union officials, the supermarket owners are seeking.

The three supermarket chains are also demanding the reduction of wages and benefits for new hires. Over the past two decades grocery workers across the nation have experienced a sharp decline in average wages, reductions in work hours, and the loss of work to vendors. The loss of a billon dollars in health care benefits would quickly mean that the strikers’ jobs would be little better than many so-called living wage jobs, as many grocery workers’ jobs already are in other parts of the country.

Sadly, more than two months into the strike/lockout that began October 12 it may not be too soon to declare the grocery strike lost. The grocery chains, separately owned by Kroger, Albertsons, and Safeway, have outfought the strikers, even though to date the companies’ immediate losses in sales and unannounced strike expenses run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Seemingly, the three corporations are prepared to spend much more than that to win the strike.

By handing the strikers a major defeat, the supermarket owners probably expect to win further concessions from the UFCW and the Teamsters union without further “labor disruptions”—as other contracts are negotiated in the months and years ahead. Wall Street analysts said at the start that the firms were out to win a major victory over their unionized workforce.

If the strikers are badly defeated, that is, if they are forced to give the three corporations what they are demanding; the loss should not be blamed on the rank-and-file workers. The grocery strikers have shown great courage and stamina in their fight. No doubt they possess the qualities needed for an all-out fight. But they have been handicapped.

Membership Participation?

To what extent were rank-and-file union members included in decision making about the strike? Although the rank-and-file members were able to vote on the question of rejecting the companies’ contract offer—which 95% of those voting did—and they also voted to strike, there’s no evidence that they voted to offer the supermarkets any concessions. Nor is there evidence that they voted to remove their pickets not once but twice from the chains’ distribution centers, allowing the Teamsters to return to work. Nor did they vote to remain cooped up rather than extend the strike.

The union’s tops have made all the strategic decisions from the strike’s first day. It’s not clear that the strikers would have made different decisions. Still, it seems reasonable to expect that many of the strikers, if not a majority, after gaining hands-on experience for a month or two, would not have been inclined to maintain the failed strategy that has governed the strike from day one.

The main elements of that strategy consisted in (1) not impacting the grocery barons’ profits, except in Southern California; (2) attempting to take advantage of the chains’ mutual rivalry for profits, at the same time that the firms have erected a united front to deal with their unionized workers; and (3) relying on token picket lines, not massive lines capable of halting deliveries by union and nonunion vendors alike.

The corporations told the UFCW more than a year ago to expect major demands for concessions, and the bosses went on to prepare financially for the anticipated strike by the union. The three supermarket chains even agreed to share financially the hazards and losses of a strike. With this solidarity established among the bosses, the hiring of scabs and the importation of management teams from other areas was comparatively small potatoes.

All of the employers’ preparations were known to the union’s officialdom when the strikers hit the bricks. Yet from day one, the union attempted to portray Kroger and Albertsons as not as bad as Safeway, so it only struck Safeway. Kroger, doing business as Ralphs, and Albertsons simultaneously locked out their UFCW members the same day the strike began. That didn’t sway the union’s strategists, who two weeks into the strike removed their pickets from Kroger/Ralphs supermarkets and encouraged consumers to shop there. Reportedly, the Kroger chain has agreed to share its profits with Safeway and Albertsons.

The union has not attempted to create massive picket lines at any of the chains’ 852 stores, nor at the Teamster-organized distribution warehouses, a vital link in the stores’ supply lines. Even when the UFCW sent pickets to two of the warehouses, they didn’t attempt to halt the flow of meat, produce, and dry goods that scabs began delivering. Two weeks into the strike the UFCW removed its pickets, and Teamsters returned to their jobs, delivering their cargo to the supermarkets’ driveways, where management and scab drivers took the keys and backed the rigs up to the loading docks.

In a turnabout just before Thanksgiving, the UFCW posted pickets at all ten union warehouses supplying the supermarkets in southern California. The 8,000 Teamsters were advised by their officials to keep away from the picket lines, which in the main they did. Then on December 19 the UFCW once again removed their pickets “as a goodwill gesture,” and later that same day the companies rejected the union’s concessions, breaking off talks, initiated by a federal mediator.

If the strike had been extended to much of the nation, costing the grocery corporations far more than they had budgeted, perhaps their shareholders and creditors would by now have had second thoughts. As it is, the workers’ finances—which while working meant for many living from paycheck to paycheck—have got to be stretched thin, and, understandably, they may be entertaining thoughts about settling for what the bosses are willing to offer.

Seemingly, the grocery corporations are prepared financially to endure the strike/lockout for many more weeks. Obviously the workers are not similarly financed. John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, has failed to raise the massive funds necessary to keep broke strikers on the token picket lines, stave off evictions or ensure needed health care.

To this day, while strikers walk picket lines, other grocery workers in adjoining counties report to work each day. Yes, those workers have contracts (to be renegotiated next year in some cases), but it is entirely legal for them to honor picket lines of other sanctioned pickets.

To this day, the union has refused to damage the three chains’ profits further by picketing those stores. It’s true the union has sent token teams of “informational pickets” to a few stores owned by Safeway in northern California and the Washington, D.C., area, but the results have been meager. In contrast, a few years ago Safeway workers in northern California struck, and Safeway’s stores were virtually abandoned by shoppers. However, informational pickets don’t stop many consumers, don’t stop deliveries by unionized drivers, and of course, don’t stop the employed UFCW workforce from daily continuing to contribute to Safeway’s revenue stream.

These days labor victories are rare, but as the 1997 UPS struggle showed, they are not only possible; they attract the attention of other workers, organized or not, and inspire them. That attention and inspiration may well have become emulation after the UPS strike were it not for the government’s removal of the Ron Carey leadership of the Teamsters union. But labor victories will not occur as long as the outlook of a strike’s policymakers resembles those of the grocery workers’ leadership.

No doubt, the strike has been marked by tactical errors and mistakes. But more importantly the strike has been undermined by the UFCW officialdom’s strategy of refusing to wage an all-out fight, despite the supermarket owners’ outrageous provocations.

Pickets Defy UFCW Officials

Just before Christmas, the United Food and Commercial Workers union once again, ordered its pickets to halt their picketing of distribution centers that supply some 850 supermarkets owned by Safeway, Albertsons, and Ralphs. The three supermarket chains are engaged in a concerted attempt to drive down medical benefits and average wages of 70,000 union grocery workers in the Southern California region.

Pickets at seven of the centers complied and the Teamsters who man the warehouses and drive the 18-wheelers to the stores were forced under their contract to return to work. But pickets at Vons’ centers (owned by Safeway) refused and as of the beginning of the year have continued their picketing. Consequently, the Teamsters employed at the Vons’ distribution warehouses have continued to stay off the job.

A well-placed Teamster source says that the rebellious pickets expect that both UFCW and Teamster officials will renew their attempts to force the pickets to leave the warehouses. An earlier unsuccessful attempt by UFCW officials to remove the pickets ended when the union officials, chased by the pickets, ran to their cars and drove off, demonstrating the pickets’ determination to stay in unmistakable terms.

The labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times, Nancy Cleeland, was told of the efforts of the UFCW to remove the defiant pickets, but as of this date, the paper has not reported what had happened.

Meanwhile, the UFCW has told the press that it is thinking about sending primary pickets to other parts of the country, shutting down grocery operations owned by the three corporations. “We will begin asking UFCW members in stores outside of Southern California to honor the picket lines,” said Greg Denier, director of communications for the UFCW office in Washington (AP, Jan. 2). The report correctly noted that, “Such a move would be the union’s most aggressive tactic to date and could further erode profits at the three major chains.” How many pickets would be dispatched and where they might picket was not revealed.

A Teamster official told this writer that given what he has seen to date, it was unlikely that the UFCW would extend the strike and was merely rattling a paper saber. In any event, the UFCW doesn’t have to go far to hit the three chains in the pocketbook. The union has yet to even threaten the picketing of other supermarkets and drugstores in the region that are organized by the UFCW. Further, in some cases since the strike and lockout began October 11, the UFCW has granted contract extensions to supermarkets owned by Safeway in other areas, allowing those stores to continue to beef up Safeway’s revenue stream.

No doubt the spreading of the fight would greatly renew the strikers morale, now sagging, especially after the UFCW pickets were ordered to leave the distribution centers. Another blow to their morale occurred last week when the union slashed the pickets strike benefits. The cuts vary according to the UFCW local union, but range from $100 to $200 a week, that is, from one-third to two-thirds of the previous strike payments. Earlier, a striking San Diego local union drastically reduced its strike pay to pickets.





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