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February 2004 • Vol 4, No. 2 •

Shut Down Safeway, Kroger and Albertsons from Coast to Coast!

By Aaron Bass

The AFL-CIO last week held its second summit meeting to discuss how to support the southern California grocery workers on strike or locked out since October 11th. The results of the meeting of union leaders from more than 50 cities and UFCW officials were issued under the headline “Union Movement to Extend Grocery Workers and picket nationwide.”

The problem is that the strike is NOT being extended. There is no call for UFCW workers at all stores of the struck chains around the country to walk out (in fact there is no mention of the continuing refusal of officials even to picket all stores in Southern California!). Nor are the Teamsters being asked to resume, much less extend, their previous sporadic and limited honoring of picket lines. And the rank-and-file, either at struck stores or in other UFCW shops, are certainly not being provided with an opportunity to discuss what they think should be done.

Instead Richard Trumka of the UMW and Ron Judd (who “coordinates AFL-CIO anti-free trade mobilizations”) are to head up the campaign with symbolic pickets appealing to consumers, an intensive education of shoppers, phone calls and pickets at executives’ houses, and similarly ineffective activities. All these would be useful as an adjunct to a real strike extension, but meaningless without that.

Richard Trumka says 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 “whatever it takes” means the kind of militancy that Trumka himself organized during the UMW strike against Pittston in 1989, when strikers used militant picket lines, convoys chasing scabs and even mine occupations to make sure the company’s facilities stayed shut.

The strike has dragged on this long primarily because of the employers’ determination to gain billions of dollars in concessions. But the UFCW leadership has made it easier for them to do so by making “good will gestures” such as limiting picket lines to one of the three chains in negotiations, and even agreeing to make concessions, both of which have only emboldened the bosses to stand fast. And while safeguarding the bosses’ profits at stores outside southern California was also an attempt to make them play nice, that too has only encouraged grocery owners to hold out “one day longer” than the strikers.

Even the limited solidarity secured from Teamsters has been ineffective: Teamsters honoring picket lines at stores have still allowed bosses and scabs to unload their trucks, and pickets at distribution centers were withdrawn in a doomed attempt to push bargaining forward.

The projected AFL-CIO national campaign provides an opportunity for the rank-and-file to retake control of the strike and take the kind of actions that should have been taken from the start. This is a fight for the rights of all workers, because the healthcare takeaways, the two-tier wages and outsourcing, are issues that have been at the core of bargaining in all industries and affect millions of workers.

The first step is to erect militant picket lines of UFCW members, members of other unions in the area, and community supporters, to shutdown every store covered by the contract. This doesn’t mean symbolic picket lines appealing to scabs not to go to work and consumers not to buy, but picket lines that physically prevent the stores from operating. This includes picket lines which appeal to Teamsters not to cross —and which physically block grocery managers or scabs from unloading those trucks.

The second step would be for rank-and-file UFCW members at Safeway, Kroger and Albertson stores in other regions to meet and discuss when to strike, both in solidarity with southern California workers and as warnings to the bosses about their own upcoming contracts (contracts in Northern California and elsewhere will expire this summer and fall, and 12 Chicago-area Dominick stores owned by Safeway are scheduled to close permanently March 13th).

The rank and file in southern California has already shown its willingness to go beyond the bounds set by UFCW officials. In various areas the rank and file has organized itself to harass scabs, has refused to withdraw picket lines from warehouses and distribution centers, even chasing off union officials who’ve come to demand they remove pickets. And many have expressed to strike supporters their feeling that picket lines should never have been withdrawn from distribution centers and in fact should not have been limited to one chain from the start. They’ve also criticized the union’s media policy, which discourages members talking to the media, and which fails to raise other issues in the strike such as two-tier wages and outsourcing that could strike a chord with millions of workers facing the same problems. And they’ve pointed to the UPS strike as a reminder of how strikers can effectively use the media to reach out to the rest of the working class.

The strikers didn’t vote to remove pickets from the chains’ distribution centers. Nor did they vote on limiting pickets to only one of the three struck chains. And they certainly have had no chance to vote on what appeal to make to fellow UFCW members working at stores in other parts of the country. UFCW officials have threatened in the past to shut down grocery operations owned by the three corporations outside southern California: “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. But they’ve failed to carry through on those threats. Rank-and-file strike committees can make this threat meaningful and organize members to carry it out.

To do so, the rank-and-file need a chance to discuss and decide on strike strategy and tactics. The place to do so is in strike committees open to all members with real decision-making power. Every store needs a committee open to all members, which can elect representatives to citywide strike committees, which in turn could elect representatives to a national rank-and-file UFCW strike coordinating committee. Such committees could organize the members to staff picket lines that actually shut down the stores, and could reach out to members of other unions in their areas to bolster those picket lines. Such committees could also organize the timing and tactics of shutting down the three chains’ stores in other parts of the country.

The last couple decades have seen a downward spiral in the UFCW’s core industries membership in meatpacking and grocery. The struck chains are claiming they need to compete with Wal-Mart, a phony claim given their profitability. This strike is an opportunity to reverse that downward spiral, which would then allow the labor movement to go on the offensive and organize Wal-Mart and other nonunion retailers.

What’s more, this strike is a chance to draw the line on labor’s general decline, its inability to stop takebacks, to stop job loss, benefit cuts and cuts in social services. That’s why we need solidarity committees in every city, working in coordination with UFCW strike committees, to discuss actions to help spread the strike and to materially support the strikers.

There have already been impressive solidarity activities in Southern California—regular visits to picket lines, financial donations, a handful of massive rallies, even one-day strikes on the part of the ILWU. But we’ve seen that kind of solidarity around other strikes in recent years—in the Detroit newspaper strike, in the three strikes in Decatur, and elsewhere. But in each case a combination of limited strike activity and half-hearted national solidarity frustrated the ranks’ determination to win.

It appears that central labor councils around the country are calling rallies to support the grocery workers. Building for these rallies can become an opportunity to organize rank-and-file solidarity committees involving unions and community groups, which would work with UFCW strike committees to bolster picket lines and organize other support activities.

In a column January 23rd, attacking Bush’s jobs and tax cut policy, New York Times’ columnist Bob Herbert wrote: “The interests of the great corporations and the wealthy, privileged classes are not the same as those of American working families.” This notion used to be the starting point for strategy in the labor movement.

But these days union officials all too often make “good will gestures” out of confusion about whose interests they serve—gestures that inevitably blow up in their faces (and for which workers suffer the consequences). If the grocery strikers are to win, and if their strike is to be a turning point for the labor movement as a whole, we must start from the standpoint that our strike strategy and tactics must be decided by rank-and-file workers, for rank-and-file workers, in the interests of rank-and-file workers.

For rank-and-file strike committees!

For a national rank-and-file soldiarity network to hel win the grocery strike!





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