What We Can Learn from the Grocery Strike
In the wake of the settlement of the grocery strike/lockout, the media have given us scores of sober assessments and “Monday morning quarterbacking” about the extent of the defeat and the UFCW’s piecemeal strategic approach.
The criticisms that rank-and-file grocery and warehouse workers, strike supporters, and others have voiced point to possible alternative strategic paths the UFCW could have chosen. Despite more than adequate lead time, union officials seemed to have had too narrow a view of what a contract campaign and strike should be.
All unionists can be proud of the solidarity and determination shown by their UFCW brothers and sisters. An amazing 91 percent of the original strikers stayed out until the end, facing off corporate opponents with seemingly bottomless pockets and a financial “solidarity” agreement now being investigated by California’s Attorney General.
While we can’t know if alternative strategies would have changed the outcome, it is clear that the union’s leadership did not launch and maintain the kind of strike that could have brought maximum force to the table. As unions prepare for another round of contract battles in the grocery industry and elsewhere, they should consider these hard-won lessons from Southern California:
• Prepare Early. Grocery chains alerted the UFCW to their desire to exact the type of concessions demanded in the recent negotiations almost two years before the dispute. Unions must prepare member-driven contract campaigns long before a contract expires. Member surveys; rank-and-file involvement in bargaining; frequent communication about bargaining issues; public rallies; and on-the-job actions are all elements of a good lead-up to a strike. In the best of cases, an ounce of this kind of organizing can be worth a pound of strike.
• Coordinate Nationally. At the time the strike began the UFCW was waging two other regional grocery strikes, in Missouri and in West Virginia/Virginia/Ohio. Other units, such as Arizona, were working under expired contracts. If the union leadership had coordinated all of these hot spots so that locals stayed out together until everyone had a settled contract, then the chains would have been forced to deal with a strike and contract campaign too huge to contain. A dozen other major contracts, involving 187,000 workers, are pending in the industry over the next year. The UFCW needs to be coordinating between these regions now.
• Find Choke Points. With just-in-time production and delivery becoming more and more the norm in today’s economy, warehouses and transportation networks have become the Achilles’ heel for companies during a strike (see rail merger story, page 5, and rail strike story, page 16). The UFCW came to this conclusion early on when it targeted the chains’ ten distribution centers in the area, but chose-with the complicity of Teamsters Joint Council 42-not to keep pickets up at all ten throughout the entire strike.
Union officials seemed to have had too narrow a view of what a contract campaign and strike should be.
• Court Allies. Just as important, the UFCW leadership did not manage to secure the agreement of the Teamsters to participate over a significantly long period of time, possibly because they did not approach them as soon as they knew what the grocery chains would try. Nor did they seem to have used the possibility of the UFCW helping in Teamster negotiations as leverage.
• Hurt the Employer. In an era when union heads are pushing for labor-management partnerships, unions have tended to shy away from aggressively trying for financial or PR damage to a company during a work action. Meanwhile, companies seem less shy about pulling out the stops. The union should have attempted to maximize its force from the get-go: striking all three chains, calling for a state-wide and national boycott of all stores owned by the chains, etc.
• Let Members Lead. Mobilization of the striking members at best looked like the faucet model-turn the tap on and off when leaders wanted it. Fortunately, some in the ranks were better generals than the generals. UFCW warehouse workers at the El Monte distribution center refused to stand down pickets despite being ordering to so by leaders, and rank-and-file Teamsters were some of the strongest advocates for cross-union solidarity on the lines. Rank-and-file members should have been tapped for their thoughts and creativity.
• Organize Wal-Mart. While organizing an employer that has over a million employees is a daunting task, steps must be taken toward a more comprehensive approach to organizing Wal-Mart. What’s needed is a more nationally-focused, resource-rich, strategic campaign aimed at both the “front end” in the retail stores (UFCW) and the “back end” in the warehouses and trucks (Teamsters). Making use of member-to-member organizing, non-majority unions, and other alternative models might also help tip the scale.
There is much to be gained from the good fight fought in Southern California. We predict these issues and others will be discussed, debated, and organized around by workers facing similar battles (see page 15).
If leaders cannot or will not raise themselves to the task at hand, then workers should come together to build independent rank-and-file organizations that can move leaders in the right direction or develop better ones.