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February 2004 • Vol 4, No. 2 •

The Grocery Strike Can Be Won

By Charles Walker and Nat Weinstein

Thousands of labor, janitorial, longshoremen and many other unions joined the UCFW union for a massive march in Inglewood, CA.

As of February 15, it will have been 126 days since 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California will have been on strike/lockout against the three largest nationwide supermarket chains. Late last month, the AFL-CIO held its second summit meeting to decide how to help the embattled union, the United Federation of Commercial Workers, win their strike. The meeting of union leaders from more than 50 cities along with UFCW officials issued a press release headed by the bold and promising title, “Union Movement to Extend Grocery Workers’ Strike and Picket Nationwide.”

Unfortunately, however, the national labor federation’s plan for action has little in common with the sense of their press release headline. While the announcement includes references to various publicity gimmicks like organizing “pray-ins” and picketing of supermarket executives’ homes, there is no mention of any plans to extend picketing to at least include all stores in Southern California, much less “nationwide,” as its headline promises.

In the AFL-CIO press release, the federation’s Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka is quoted as saying that the AFL-CIO “will do whatever it takes to make sure that these striking and locked out workers hold the line one day longer than their employers.” In this situation that normally would mean taking the kind of action Trumka, himself, and other United Mine Workers leaders took during the UMW’s nationwide strike in 1977-78.

That 110-day strike succeeded in shutting the coal industry down long enough for the mine owners to decide that they could not afford to take a strike for one day longer. This event, one of many such bold and effective local and national strike actions by coal miners and their union, is the only way that workers can manage to stay out “one day longer” than their capitalist adversary.

Moreover, that nationwide strike was carried out in defiance of a Taft-Hartley anti-strike injunction, which the so-called “pro-labor”-president, Jimmy Carter, declaring a “national emergency,” ordered the courts to impose. But despite a strident media campaign denouncing striking miners and near-unanimous support to strikebreaking by the bipartisan Congress, the ruling class, together with all the forces of “law and order” was unable to make the injunction stick. The strike ended in a major victory for coal miners and their union despite the treacherous role of the AFL-CIO leadership.

A crisis of working-class ‘leadership’

To better understand the crisis of leadership that exists in the labor movement today, a word or two is in order regarding the history of the strike that the old Richard Trumka helped lead 26 years earlier.

Trumka today is not the man he was 26 years ago. He has allowed his early reputation as a UMW militant to be used to disguise the thoroughly class collaborationist policy of the AFL-CIO’s top officialdom.

But it’s not entirely his fault. The source of the degeneration and the resulting decades of setbacks suffered by workers at the hands of corporate America sprang from the anti-communist campaign launched at the outset of the Cold War by capitalist America and its entire political and media monopoly. The key provision of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act was its requirement that all elected union officers be compelled to sign an oath declaring “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of a communist organization.”

The passage of this legislation, vigorously opposed by the militant wing of union leadership headed by UMW President John L. Lewis, allowed the most reactionary wing of the labor officialdom to sweep all union militants and advocates of rank-and-file democracy out of their elected union posts and often out of the labor movement altogether. The resulting establishment of a virtual bureaucratic dictatorship over the American labor movement is what laid the foundation for the subsequent decline of union power and the violation of the long-standing labor principle that union officials receive a salary based on the average wage paid their dues-paying membership.1 Now, it’s not uncommon for union officials to receive salaries and other benefits adding up to more than $200,000 a year.

It’s important for the reader to know at least a little more of the history of the 1997-78 national miners strike and the role of the AFL-CIO’s top officialdom: The miners were victorious despite the refusal of the AFL-CIO’s top officialdom to give the slightest aid or assistance to striking miners. On the contrary, the labor bureaucracy supported President Carter’s strikebreaking invocation of what the bureaucracy itself dubbed the Taft-Hartley “slave-labor law.” They went so far as to discourage unions from taking any action in solidarity with striking miners on the grounds that they were in violation of the law that empowered the courts to outlaw strikes!

However, on the initiative of militant rank and file trade unionists around the country, who simply followed the old labor principle—“An injury to one is an injury to all!”—set in motion a movement that brought enough moral and material support to embattled coal miners—who remained true to their legendary spirit of class struggle—to make the difference between a ruinous defeat and a smashing strike victory. In fact, in San Francisco, one of the cities where the rank-and-file support movement originated, it was the current head of the SF Labor Council, Walter Johnson, who played a significant role in mobilizing a support movement for the miners union.

Johnson, at the time, was president of Retail Clerks International Union, local 1100, which has since been absorbed by the UFCW. He was instrumental in leading a successful fight in the SF Labor Council to allow UMW strike leaders in San Francisco at the time to tell their story to the assembled representatives of the city’s labor movement in opposition to the then president of the Labor Council who was heeding the advice of national AFL-CIO leaders.

Johnson’s intervention contributed to a movement that erupted throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in support of striking coal miners. UMW leaders in San Francisco, in line with their traditional class-struggle instincts, embraced this rank-and-file movement and sent representatives to help it along wherever in the country a support movement showed signs of emerging. With the kind of militancy that Trumka had once been identified with, the untapped creative powers of a democratic, self-acting, class-struggle-oriented American working class could be easily mobilized even under today’s unfavorable conditions.

The labor bureaucracy since then has continued and deepened its suicidal policy of subordinating basic working class solidarity to its 72-year-long reliance on its “lesser evil” friends in the Democrat Party—a policy that reflects its delusion that a partnership exists between labor and capital based on the notion that working-class interests must necessarily be subordinated to the employers’ God-given right to rake-in a “reasonable” profit.

Unfortunately however, the only partnership possible between labor and capital is the kind that exists between slave master and slave.

The real nature of the AFL-CIO’s plan

Strangely enough, compared to the AFL-CIO’s press release, we get a much clearer picture of what the AFL-CIO leadership really means by an “extension” of the strike and “nationwide picketing” from a report that appeared in the January 20 Los Angeles Times by reporter Nancy Cleeland.

She writes: “The AFL-CIO is taking control of national strategy for the California supermarket strike and lockout, [and is] assigning two veterans of labor wars to turn around a battle in which employers seem to have gained the upper hand.” In a move intended to give the impression that the national labor federation “means business,” AFL-CIO leaders announced that its secretary-treasurer, Richard Trumka, and an appointed union functionary, Ron Judd, who is described as having “orchestrated AFL-CIO protests at the turbulent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle,” were assigned to lead the campaign to reinforce the Southern California grocery strike.

The LA Times reporter, notes that UFCW officials hastily announced that they “welcomed the AFL-CIO’s heightened participation on the tactical side, characterizing the federation’s plan as an expansion of a strategy the UFCW had already set in motion.” In other words, by correctly claiming credit for the AFL-CIO’s plan, UFCW leaders inadvertently make clear that they are fully aware that nothing essential will be changed.

To be sure, a major effort by the official leadership of the American labor movement to put its full weight into the battle on the side of grocery workers is exactly what is needed. After all, it is widely recognized that the outcome of this strike will not only affect the 70,000 workers directly involved, but will set a precedent affecting the UFCW’s 900,000 retail grocery store workers, when their contracts expire in the immediate period ahead. It is further acknowledged by most commentators that a defeat of the grocery strike will also adversely affect the bargaining position of the entire union movement for years to come.

While the mass media has correctly focused on the grocery bosses clear intention to eviscerate grocery workers’ already inadequate health insurance plan, corporate America, along with their counterparts in the grocery industry, are demanding much more than that. The employers also want sharp cuts in average wages of the cruelest kind—hitting the already suffering lowest-paid workers hardest. That’s the meaning of the rapidly growing trend toward multi-tiered wage rates.

The reason for this seemingly irrational policy of directing their sharpest blows against those least able to bear further reductions in wages, serves another purpose in the capitalist scheme of things. It serves to alienate the lower from the higher-paid workers; and is entirely in line with the basic strategy of all ruling minorities—divide and conquer!

In other words, if the giant supermarket chains emerge victorious over Southern California grocery workers, it will further alter the relation of forces between labor and capital in favor of the latter as has every setback and defeat suffered by the AFL-CIO in the last half-century.

The LA Times reporter wastes no time before outlining the AFL-CIO’s announced plans for turning the tide of the strike in favor of grocery workers. “The plan,” she reports, “is to pressure the supermarket companies by hounding executives and directors with phone calls and visits, staging demonstrations across the country—including a pray-in outside the Northern California home of the chief executive of Safeway Incorporated—and persuading major grocery-company shareholders, such as pension funds, to take stands in the union’s favor.”

Now, for those unfamiliar with the recent history of defeated strikes in the United States, the strategy being advanced by the AFL-CIO, is a well-known scheme familiar to many of the country’s experienced trade union activists. It goes by the name of the “Corporate Campaign”—a strike strategy cooked up by an independent entrepreneur by the name of Ray Rogers. It was first instituted in a big way during the UFCW Local P-9 strike against the giant Hormel meatpacking company in Austin, Minnesota in 1995-96.

What is the ‘Corporate Campaign’?

The P-9 leadership—and the membership, although with some grumblings and reservations—bought Rogers’ bill of goods and followed the Corporate Campaign strategy to the letter.

Rogers’ “new tactics” were based on his view that strikes in the period preceding the P-9 strike, such as the Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Caterpillar Tractor and Con Edison strikes, were defeated because the old methods of struggle no longer worked. Rogers argued that the way to defeat union-busting companies was to cut–off their power base at the banks, holding companies and other industries that have a financial interest in the struck company.

Corporate Campaigners, however, fail to appreciate the high degree of class-consciousness of the masters of finance and industry. Capitalism’s leaders—unlike those at the head of the unions—do not delude themselves with the myth promoted by the bosses that labor and capital are in the same boat and their interests coincide. They see clearly what their class interests require, and use whatever means necessary to achieve their objectives.

On those rare and unusual occasions when the bosses take advantage of the difficulties of their competitors to get a leg up on them, they are, however, far more aware of the danger of such tactics than are the professional misleaders of the working class who perceive class collaboration as the axis of their strategy!

What Corporate Campaigners also fail to take into consideration is the history of the labor movement and how it was built. The big union struggles of the 1930s, like the Teamster, Longshore and auto industry strikes in 1934; the wave of giant sit-down strikes that swept across the industrial heartland of America, France and other countries in 1937; and the three national coal miners’ strikes in 1943 at the height of World War II were won by closing down the plants and mobilizing masses of workers when necessary to keep them closed.

One of the Corporate Campaigners’ justifications for their new tactics is that anti-labor legislation enacted in 1947 “has eroded the power of the unions.” But this is only half true and is, therefore, as the saying goes—false!

First, when the labor upsurge of the 1930s began, the laws in effect were no less anti-labor. Second, the much-deplored anti-labor legislation had been enacted without any attempt at effective resistance due entirely to underhanded support to the law by the labor bureaucracy. On the contrary, they did their best to discourage active resistance by maverick union officials like the UMW’s John L. Lewis, who castigated the nation’s top labor bureaucrats for their treasonous role.2 To this day, labor’s misleadership meekly obeys laws that would fall like a house of cards in the face of determined mass defiance, as the essentially identical laws were over-ridden in the 1930s .

Corporate Campaigners are also under the fatal misapprehension that “corporate greed,” as they call it, is a “policy.” But it is much more than a policy restricted to “anti-labor” capitalists, as they falsely assert, it is intrinsic to the capitalist profit system. That is, for capitalists, greed is the driving force of an economic system based on production for profit, rather than for use. Or as the philosophers might put it, greed for capitalists is a categorical imperative!

In a nutshell: Although the Corporate Campaign strategy includes among its tactics the mobilization of support from masses of rank-and-file trade union and community activists for strike support demonstrations, boycotts and other such actions, it excludes mass picketing designed to stop production—which is the only way to stop the flow of profits into the bosses’ bank accounts. For Corporate Campaigners, mass picketing is excluded where it counts—at the point of production, where the unions can strike its most damaging inroads on the profits of their class enemy.

Putting substance into the bureaucracy’s ‘call to action’

Nevertheless, the belated but welcome recognition by the AFL-CIO that a grocery strike defeat would be a serious blow to the entire working class and its unions; and its call to action under the excellent title, “Union Movement to Extend Grocery Workers’ Strike and Picket Nationwide,” can have the effect of opening the door a crack for the considerable layer of union militants that remain a largely isolated and scattered minority only because the inherently militant and democratic instincts of working people are systematically blunted and suppressed by high-handed bureaucratic methods—and of course, the unrelenting repressive measures enforced by the executive committee of the capitalist class; that is, the bipartisan government of the United States.

Such a small but highly significant rank-and-file rebellion occurred a couple of months ago when rank and file UFCW pickets refused to obey an order by their union officials to stop their picketing of distribution centers. This is how it was reported by active unionist N. Renuka Uthappa:

On December 19, the day talks [with employers] were scheduled to reopen; the UFCW announced it would pull pickets from all the 10 distribution warehouses, which serve the three supermarket chains. The Teamsters, who had started picketing the same centers on November 24, followed suit.

A UFCW press release called the decision a “good faith move,” but the companies rejected the union’s offer, which included about $350 million in health care concessions, the same day.

Teamster member Frank Halstead reports that infuriated warehouse workers at Vons’ El Monte distribution center refused to take down their pickets when ordered to do so.

According to Frank Villa, a member of IBT Local 630 who has visited the El Monte strikers, Teamster warehouse workers told the UFCW members, “Don’t move your line, and we won’t cross it.”

Soon after, the UFCW announced that pickets would come down at Ralphs and Albertsons but remain at the four Vons distribution warehouses.

Teamsters with Locals 848 and 630 refused to cross any of the Vons distribution center’s lines.

“These UFCW guys are heroes,” exclaimed Villa. “They’re not letting [Teamsters Joint Council President] Jim Santangelo move them. If not for them, the Teamsters would have been out of this completely.”

However, after nearly two months of continued picketing, further pressure on militant unionists by high-placed labor bureaucrats inside the UFCW, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO, eventually succeeded in shutting down picketing of distribution centers by grocery strikers. Thus, supplies again began flowing back into the empty shelves of the struck supermarkets—allowing profits to also renew their flow into corporate bank accounts.

However, it will take leadership to take advantage of the slim opening provided by the AFL-CIO’s belated recognition that a defeat for grocery strikers would set-off an accelerated offensive by capital against the entire working class and its unions. It will be up to the small but significant vanguard of militant trade unionists that are scattered and largely independent of each other to organize the nucleus of a class struggle left wing that is desperately needed to help the next generation of class struggle fighters to come together around a program of action based on methods that have worked so effectively in the past.

And for the first time in many years, voices have recently begun to be raised among the scattered layer of class-conscious veterans and students of past labor battles advocating the formation of a nucleus of a class struggle movement inside the unions such as the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) that helped initiate the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. (The CIO was reunited with the AFL to form today’s AFL-CIO in 1955.)

The function of such a formation as was the TUEL is indispensable for effectively advancing an alternative strategy to the class-collaborationist (business unionism) strategy of John J. Sweeney and other members of the ruling AFL-CIO bureaucratic hierarchy. That, of course, would necessitate the revival of the time-tested but largely abandoned labor policy of the workers’ united front.

However, while it is absolutely necessary to frankly describe, characterize and polemicize against the harmful policy of labor’s official leadership, a class struggle left wing is urgently needed to lead a struggle inside the labor movement to fundamentally change the defeatist policy of the AFL-CIO to a winning program designed to make the present one-sided class struggle, two-sided. The force of the sort of left wing movement the working class desperately needs, however must be directed primarily at the class enemy, as well as anyone inside the unions who sides with corporate America and its public and private agents.

Such a formation with which both individuals and unions could affiliate must also stand ready to closely collaborate with those union officials—including the Sweeneys and the Trumkas—in a united front directed at the class enemy wherever and whenever they take sides with the workers against the bosses.

To be sure, that perspective does not rule out criticism of those policies that blunt the struggle in support of such battles as are now being fought by grocery workers and their union. And the only way to do that is by reasoned argument in opposition to those policies that are harmful to working-class interests and in support of more effective alternative policies designed and democratically decided by the union rank and file.

Such a line of argumentation must be sharp and clear, but be devoid of false or unsubstantiated charges. A fundamental principle of the united-front policy moreover, necessitates the subordination of those secondary points of difference—including those principled differences within the ranks of the workers’ movement that are not relevant to the immediate tasks before the working class. In the current instance, that would be to win the best contract possible for the grocery workers and their union.

There is nothing wrong with sharp and clear debate over policy, which is in any case absolutely unavoidable. The only thing wrong is if secondary differences are allowed to stand in the way of united action around those important issues that invariably and repeatedly arise.

1 See Labor’s Giant Step by labor historian Art Preis, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1964.

2 The miners union changed its name to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) since the 1977-78 coal strike ended.





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