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March 2004 • Vol 4, No. 3 •

Grocery Strike Defeated: How Labor Can Pick Up the Pieces

By Andrew Pollack

The author, a longtime labor activist, got his first union card 31 years ago with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, now part of the UFCW. This article benefits from previous reporting on the strike by Charles Walker.

For four-and-a-half months 59,000 grocery workers in seven United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals walked the picket lines in southern California in yet another battle portrayed as pivotal for labor’s future (the contract covers 70,000 workers, employed by Albertsons Inc.; Kroger Co., which operates Ralphs stores; and Safeway Inc., which operates Vons and Pavillions—as well as 11,000 workers at smaller companies who were never pulled out). One factor making the strike so key was that like most strikes in recent years a central issue was healthcare; the fear was that if the supermarket chains won they would try to cut healthcare in all their contracts, and would further embolden employers in other industries already trying to do the same. Demands for a lower-wage tier and cuts in pension benefits also raised the stakes.

Despite showing heroic steadfastness for months on the picket line, on February 28th and 29th members voted by 86 percent—mostly from exhaustion and despair—to ratify a contract little different from the company’s final proposal in October. Yet the International and the AFL-CIO claimed victory. “We went on strike to protect affordable health care, preserve our pensions and assure job security, and we achieved all three of those principles,’’ union spokeswoman Ellen Andreder said. Douglas Dority, president of the UFCW, said the dispute was “one of the most successful strikes in history.”

The members saw things differently, wondering why the length of their brave fight had yielded so little. Those interviewed by the media all saw the final contract as virtually the same as the company’s pre-strike final offer.

The excuse used by the bosses for their demands for concessions was competition from WalMart, which will be opening stores in the region in coming years. The union showed that the three chains were profitable enough for that to be a phony excuse. The three chains have been making billions in profits in recent years, and their CEOs millions in salaries and stock options. In fact a part owner of Albertson’s made the number three spot on the Forbes 500 list of richest people in the world for 2003.

Yet it was their own concern for the chains’ profitability nationwide that hamstrung union leaders’ strategy. The strike defeat was due primarily to the three chains’ willingness, with the urging of Wall Street, to use their national revenues to last “one day longer” than the strikers, and the UFCW national leadership’s determination, despite that, to keep the fight local. The UFCW boasts of being the largest public-sector union in the U.S., with over a million members, and has hundreds of thousands of members just in the three chains. Yet dozens of distinct locals around the country bargain separate contracts with different expiration dates and wildly varying terms. Despite this variety, the expiration of contracts shortly before, during and shortly after the southern California strike could have been turned into a union strength, with rolling pickets or even a nationwide strike at the three chains.

The exact opposite occurred. For instance, on February 13th, with the strike in danger of being lost, the seven locals on strike agreed to extend the contract of Kroger subsidiary, Food 4 Less, set to expire on February 28th, until April 4th. Of course the members were never consulted on such treacherous tactics nor were there meetings where they could be voted on or alternatives proposed.

Some critics of the union tops claim: “They just didn’t anticipate the hardball style that the supermarket industry would adopt [in Southern California].” Other union staff admit the union knew what was coming down the pike and refused to prepare. Nonetheless, the strikers showed admirable fortitude throughout the strike with low levels of scabbing, and local consumers by and large showing an equally admirable degree of support. Members continued to walk the picket lines while they were losing their homes and cars, their health insurance and their ability to pay for childcare. (One form of strike solidarity became bringing toys and books to entertain the kids on the picket lines). There were six member suicides and hundreds of strikers’ homes and cars lost.

On occasion rank-and-file UFCW members went beyond their dedicated picketing to experiment with bolder tactics. At the El Monte distribution center they refused the union leadership’s order to withdraw their pickets, even chasing away a bureaucrat who came to enforce the order. There were a handful of rallies in Los Angeles, occasional civil disobedience actions, including inside stores, demonstrations with community supporters at executives’ homes, and a “stop-work” meeting and significant financial contribution by the ILWU. But not only did the union lack an effective local, much less national, strategy, it wouldn’t use its full power even in southern California. It tried to pit Ralph’s and Albertson’s against Safeway by not striking the former, but the bosses had a pact and locked out union members once Safeway was struck. They even had in place an illegal revenue-sharing scheme to compensate each other for losses. Yet it wasn’t until the weekend before the settlement that UFCW officials decided to call for a boycott of all Safeway stores throughout the state—and even then not of the other two chains. And they probably only announced it then because they knew a settlement was in the wings—i.e. the boycott was just a public-relation maneuver to be used as a bargaining chip.

Even at Safeway there were no attempts to mount picket lines large enough to shut down the stores or halt deliveries. And during most of the limited period when Teamsters were being asked to honor picket lines at the chains’ distribution centers, the drivers parked their cars at the line and handed their keys to managers who then drove them across and had them unloaded. Yet efforts to garner Teamster solidarity could have built on those workers’ existing militancy against the grocery firms, who’ve been on the offensive against them for years.

The union tried to appease the chains in other ways. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the union put up picket lines at all warehouses supplying the supermarkets in southern California. But when negotiations briefly resumed just before Christmas the union removed picket lines from distribution and warehouse facilities as a “goodwill gesture”—and soon afterward the companies broke off negotiations again.

Two months after the strike began the union announced it was offering $350 million in concessions in health care costs—but even this wasn’t enough for the companies, which were seeking $1 billion in health-care reductions. Instead of resolving the strike, the offer further sapped members’ morale.

In early February, the UFCW held a press conference to announce its willingness to submit the strike to third-party binding arbitration. One union staffer described this as a “white flag, because all issues were unresolved. Management laughed and took 17 minutes to respond negatively through the press.”

The International also dealt a blow to strikers’ morale by cutting strike benefits in half, in the middle of the strike. Yet despite their solicitude for the bosses’ national profits there will be national ramifications in ongoing and soon-to-come negotiations. As a result some UFCW officials are already starting to distance themselves from the settlement, saying their areas won’t settle for similar terms. Of course the bosses will try to prove them wrong.

The lack of solidarity from other unions was also glaring, even from those supposedly more progressive and more serious about organizing. One UFCW staffer claimed that the lack of support from the SEIU was “pure politics,” with the SEIU being angry at the UFCW for its uncertainty about whether to join the New Unity Partnership (the new bureaucratic attempt to reorganize labor, mostly through top-down mergers, allegedly to fund new organizing).

The AFL-CIO’s record during the strike was equally dismal, waiting four months into the strike before taking any noticeable action. It held two “summit” meetings, the second of which announced the appointment of Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer and leader of the militant UMW Pittston strike, and Ron Judd, coordinator of its Seattle and Miami anti-WTO efforts, to head up a national campaign. The net result however was a pathetically small rally on Wall Street (which local UFCW staffers had been asking for months to be allowed to hold), and some leafleting and rallies, mostly at the initiative of local activists, in a couple of cities.

In one respect at least, the final deal is even worse than the company’s October offer, which would have had an hourly pay increase. Under the new contract current workers will receive no raises and two lump-sum annual bonuses, expected to be about $500 each. New hires will start at $8.90 an hour, down from $9.80 in the previous contract, and will only go up to $15.10 an hour, never reaching the current top rate of $17.90.

In addition, new hires will have a less generous pension plan than current workers and will have to pay $450 a year on average in health premiums, while current workers pay nothing.

For current employees, health-care coverage will continue to be paid by the employer for the first two years. Clerks would have to pay up to $5 a week for individual coverage and $15 a week for family benefits thereafter if company contributions aren’t enough to cover costs. New hires would receive a smaller company contribution and will have to pay about $9 a week for a basic health-care plan. Previously workers paid no premiums for health benefits and a $10 co-payment for doctor’s visits and prescriptions.

In addition, the supermarkets will contribute 35 percent toward employee pensions for new hires versus 65 percent for veteran employees. The supermarkets had previously contributed 100 percent to employee pension plans.

The lower employer contributions to the benefit funds will also endanger the stability of the pool covering current workers’ benefits (management will contribute $1.10 an hour for health insurance for new hires, compared with $3.80 for current workers). What’s more there is now a cap on employer contributions to the healthcare plan even for current workers, which were formerly adjusted each month according to claims’ costs. This could lead to increases in out-of-pocket costs.

These setbacks in healthcare come at a dangerous time for labor. The number of employers covering workers’ health care even at large firms has been steadily shrinking, and this defeat will encourage others to do the same. For that reason this strike must be seen by labor activists as a clarion call for a change in strategy, both in standing in solidarity with strikers trying to preserve benefits (or newly organizing workers trying to win it for the first time), and in taking up the Labor Party’s campaign for national single-payer healthcare not tied to employer benefits.

Throughout the strike the union denied the chains’ claims that they needed concessions to be able to compete with Wal-Mart—while implicitly accepting those claims by protecting the chains’ nationwide profits. After the defeat however the chief union negotiator defended the concessions granted by saying “it’s not in our best interest to turn our companies into dinosaurs.”

Meanwhile the ranks fear that “our” companies have plans to push out current workers in favor of lower-compensated new hires, by giving them bad shifts or transferring them to undesirable locations and hoping they’ll quit. Many fear there’ll be a wave of disciplinary actions to the same end. And some industry analysts expect the three chains to start closing “poor-performing” locations later this year, laying off hundreds and perhaps thousands of workers. In an industry already marked by unusually high turnover, the bosses could very soon have a majority of the workforce in the second tier.

What makes the absence of a national strategy even more criminal is that during the strike other negotiations were going on with these same chains—in fact at one point during the strike 20,000 of their employees were on strike in the Midwest. Yet those contracts were settled in the middle of the southern California struggle with no attempt at all to link them.

(Naturally the union could find the time and energy to begin campaigning for Democrat John Kerry, announcing its endorsement two days after the strike ended. A New York organizer asked about this endorsement pointed out that the last Democratic President couldn’t get his two Arkansas Senators to back anti-right-to-work legislation which helped kill a UFCW organizing drive.)

What militant unionists need to do next

Labor needs a permanent, organized labor left so we don’t keep reinventing the wheel with ad hoc solidarity struggles. What’s more a permanent formation could take up new organizing—starting with WalMart (currently the target of a faint effort by the UFCW), whose importance many liken to that of GM and U.S. Steel in the 1930’s.

Such a formation could also recruit unions to support for the Labor Party’s single-payer healthcare campaign in an effort to take healthcare out of the sphere of employer-funded plans—while simultaneously fighting, until that happens, to defend and extend existing health benefits.

This need for continuity in solidarity was outlined clearly in Charles Walker’s article “The Great Grocery Strike and the Left.” Walker pointed out that despite rallying to the cause of the supermarket workers, the efforts of union militants would not only fail to turn the tide but would even be largely forgotten at the strike’s end for lack of a permanent labor left with sufficient size and permanence to be effective.

The nationwide efforts in support of P-9 were far greater than those around the Southern California grocery strike, yet for lack of an organized labor left there was no permanent legacy of that strike. And supporters of the landmark strikes in the years in-between (Detroit News, Decatur, etc.) similarly had to start from scratch in organizing solidarity. In the absence of such a repository for labor’s memories even lessons from Los Angeles itself were lost: for instance, the militant actions of that city’s Justice for Janitors campaign were not replicated (although as one UFCW staffer said off the record if there had been mass arrests on that scale the strike would have ended much sooner and victoriously).

As a way of dealing with this problem Walker pointed to the speech made by former AFL-CIO education director Bill Fletcher at the 2003 Labor Notes conference arguing for a modern-day version of the Trade Union Educational League—and for greater unity and more coherent organizational efforts by socialists of the type who formed the League. The league advocated union democracy, an end to labor-management collaboration, industrial unionism, a labor party, antiracism, and international workers’ solidarity. More recently two UE staffers also called for a new TUEL, with a proposal detailing what it would do in the sphere of new organizing.

In the last couple decades there have certainly been enough reform caucuses formed to provide a base for a class-wide formation, even if at the start it is much smaller and modest in its goals than the TUEL. And the formation of the Labor Party and U.S. Labor Against the War is more evidence of the possibility of taking labor networking beyond ad hoc strike support and single-union caucuses.

While the grocery defeat will be demoralizing at first, it could just as easily be motivation for labor activists to say enough is enough and begin taking matters into our own hands.





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