Grocery Workers Fight Health Cuts and Job Loss to Vendors
More than 70,000 striking grocery workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, have been on the line for over six weeks in a strike that is becoming a war of attrition.
In the strikers' corner: significant community support, cross-union solidarity, and the AFL-CIO's creation of a national strike fund to help the union pay $10 million per week in strike benefits.
In management's corner: the deep pockets of Vons (the struck supermarket giant owned by Safeway), Ralphs (owned by Kroger), and Albertsons. The latter two chains have locked their workers out in support of Vons.
On November 1, 20 hospital workers from SEIU Local 250 joined the picket line at Vons. "All SEIU's struggles have that component of winning access to healthcare," said Sal Rosselli, president of the local. "Any attacks on that, we take on as our fight."
More than 4,000 people rallied November 10 in the parking lot of an Albertsons market in San Pedro. The rally was organized by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, and Friends of Labor, a local community labor support group.
ILWU Local 13 called a stop-work meeting and held it in the Albertsons lot as part of the demonstration.
"The most important issue on the waterfront," Local 13 president Joe Donato told the crowd, "is the UFCW. The Los Angeles waterfront is closed, and I brought along 2,000 of my closest friends!"
The ILWU passed a motion to purchase 1,000 Thanksgiving turkey and fixings baskets, 500 of which will be donated to locked-out and striking workers for the holidays.
Groups such as the Jewish Labor Committee and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance have organized actions to get members of the community on the picket line supporting workers.
Daniela Conde, an organizer with the UCLA student group MEChA, said that at first, many students were crossing the picket line at a nearby Ralphs store.
Frustrated workers responded by making signs that read "Bruins, don't cross!" The Student Worker Front (which MEChA belongs to) organized other UCLA student organizations to join the pickets each day.
Frank Rodriguez, also from UCLA, gleefully described how 45 students went into a Ralphs store and filled their carts with fruits and vegetables.
Rodriguez said another student got to the checkout lane and began yelling, "I can't pay for this food because I can't afford health insurance!" Shoppers were momentarily paralyzed while students chanted, "Shame on Ralphs! Shame on Ralphs!"
Jerry Tucker, a former UAW leader in St. Louis, where there was recently a three-and-a-half week grocery strike, attributes the high level of public solidarity he observed in the St. Louis strike to a new identification with the workers:
"Ten years ago, more people were thinking, 'I'm moving up to the next level. I'm not one of them.' Now they're thinking, 'My fate is more like theirs. I may be an engineer, but I've been laid off twice.'"
Paul Worthman, an instructor at the Labor Center of the Los Angeles Community Colleges, suggests that management's insistence that workers address customers at the checkout line by their names (as printed on the bill) and personally escort customers to items they ask about rather than saying, "It's in aisle six," have had an effect on this strike:
"Part of the loyalty that has led to customer solidarity is that everyone knows the checkout people."
Shoppers turned away at the door may also be responding to worker leaflets asking exiting shoppers to carefully check receipts for scab mistakes and to consider that replacement workers in specialized areas such as dairy and meat have not received the training necessary to ensure product safety.
WHO STOCKS THE SHELVES?
Corporate attempts to slash grocery worker health care benefits have received most of the media attention, but a contract stipulation that allows vendors to stock shelves is also at stake.
Don Ely of UFCW Local 1442, an experienced grocery clerk and 23-year Ralphs veteran, explains:
"In the contract, it reads that the vendors can stock the whole store, and 20% of [designated] bagger hours can go to stocking shelves. The baggers will be paid my rate, but then what am I left to do? I'm worried they're going to say, 'We'll give you eight hours at this store, eight hours at that store.' They could really mess with me. I have only seven years to go until my pension. I'm fighting this!"
Ely has reason to be concerned. After the St. Louis strike, the UFCW accepted a contract that allows vendors to stock shelves, even though they managed to preserve health care benefits.
As reported recently by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the corporations consider this a significant long-term gain. St. Louis grocery workers displaced by vendors stocking shelves will be moved to other jobs to make up the lost hours, "but the total pool of hours available to all employees will ultimately be less.
"[The chief executive of one of the markets] expects that many of these workers will simply quit-the companies will not replace them and therefore will save money."
PICKETS PULLED AT RALPHS
On day 20 of the strike, the UFCW announced that it was pulling pickets from Ralphs, where 18,000 workers remain locked out, and moving these workers to picket lines in front of Vons and Albertsons, to thank customers for their strong support of the strike thus far.
Shannon Donato, director of the Harry Bridges Institute and Community Labor Center, expressed frustration, saying, "Our only power as working class people is in how we spend our money. If the workers haven't been rehired, why would we ever want to shop at Ralphs, even without a picket?"
Cookie Lomel, western regional director of the Jewish Labor Committee, considers the UFCW's decision strategic, noting, "I'm sure they did it to divide and conquer."
Don Seaquist, president of UFCW Local 789 in Minnesota, echoed this assumption: "My sense is they are trying to break the employer coalition."
Ely said he had no problem with the decision to pull pickets away from the employer who has locked him out.
"It was a smart move on the union's part...people were really honoring the picket line, but it was getting to be a real hardship. Had the union not made the decision, the people would have started going back. The decision gave people a place to shop, and this divides [the three employers]."
Barbara Maynard, spokesperson for UFCW Locals 770 and 1442, asserted that the addition of Ralphs picketers, to the lines at Vons and Albertsons provided "an infusion of energy."
Community support continues to help the strikers, she reported, and mentioned that both clergy and community groups will soon begin an "adopt-a-store" campaign.
Ely observed that "people are starting to find other jobs, but they still come to the picket line." He added, "They're wearing down, though."
Some mothers, he said, are having a particularly tough time: "They have to choose to picket or sneak in and sub at Ralphs or Albertsons. A few were doing this, but they were told that it was not in their best interest."
ALL EYES ON CALIFORNIA
Ruth Milkman, director of the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment, believes it is important to recognize just how employer-driven this strike is, calling it "a major test of labor movement power."
The contract before southern California UFCW members, she notes, asks for "a whole different scale of concessions" than were attempted elsewhere in the country. "It's no accident that they chose southern California, known for its labor militancy, to try this."
Worthman concurs, calling the proposed contract "draconian."
"There's no question that the union was pushed out on the street," he adds. "There's a union-busting line on this. These guys are out on the single most important labor issue right now: healthcare."
"If we go down," Ely observes, "it's the beginning of the end. The next target would be the Teamsters. If they break, it'll be a domino effect."
Editor's Note: At press time, the union and companies were meeting with a federal mediator in an attempt to resume negotiations.