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May 2004 • Vol 4, No. 5 •

Rank-and-File Strike Support Group Formed

By Javier Armas

A new group, the Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization (BASSO) that grew out of a solidarity movement with the Southern California grocery strikers, has been organizing in the Bay Area for class solidarity across industrial lines. BASSO organized a key event on April 2 in Oakland. This event included a panel discussion with Craig Bague, a member of UFCW Local 1442 in Southern California and part of their strike force. Bague’s key points in his presentation to the community included a strong warning: “You guys are in the fight of your lives, trust me. They are going to do every dirty tactic you can think of.”

Bague electrified the audience in his introductory remarks and continued: “They have more money than you and that is the bottom line, so the pressure has to come nation-wide. Whether it’s boycotts or strikes, it has to come nation-wide because they have too many arms on this octopus that is bringing in money to them and it’s true that they are going to act as a coalition. It’s like a fighter fighting another fighter and saying, ‘I don’t want to hurt this guy because we want to be friends afterwards,’ and in the meantime he is beating the shit out of you.” Bague finished his remarks about where to go from here: “To walk on a strike line out of your own volition is what BASSO is about and that’s why this organization is important.” Bague received a mighty standing ovation for his commitment to continuing the struggle.

The event concluded with Richard Mellor, a member of AFSCME Local 444, offering the audience sharp political lessons: “In this coming contract the employers will feel confident. The AFL-CIO has to make it publicly known that a national strike needs to be prepared to fight these companies. In order to do this we need to violate the anti-union laws that have been in place to keep the working class docile.” This political strategy came from the lessons of the strike in Southern California that was narrow and isolated. Mellor also warned the audience about past boycott failures: the Greyhound strike in 1980, the Hormel strike in 1986, and the Diamond Walnut strike in the early 1990s. All these strikes were lost because boycotts were used as a tactic as a nation wide force rather than extending the strike nationwide.

The UFCW rank-file is nervous and lacks information about the new contracts. Several workers have said that they will accept whatever is offered while many others assert that this is going to be a critical fight for their very livelihood and they will not accept concessions. These fights are crucial to the power dynamics of the workplace in the next coming fifty years.

The American economy has been gradually gravitating towards a service economy and away from a manufacturing economy. The service industry is a permanent fixture since Blockbusters, McDonalds and Safeway cannot be shipped over seas. The grocery industry is one area of this service industry that is unionized and offers benefits such as healthcare and a pension. However, a combination of the union movement unable to unionize Wal-Mart and the recent series of attacks on Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger workers will push the living standard of the working class down and further oppress and exploit the workers. Many workers will just accept whatever concessions they are subjected to and will compensate by working overtime.

This individual approach to systemic class attacks is leading to horrific working conditions in the US. For example, 48 million Americans don’t have any access to healthcare and more than one million people lose their health insurance every year, while another 62 million see their health benefits coverage reduced or their premiums increased. Because of inaccessibility to Healthcare, the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that almost 100,000 people die in the United States each year because of lack of needed care—three times the number of people who have died of AIDS. These figures occurred even when US spent 14% of its GNP on healthcare—more than any other industrialized country in the world.

Besides the rising death toll from the American healthcare crisis, 35% of the elderly cut back on their food purchases so they can afford their medications. And among the terminally ill, 39% have reported “moderate to severe problems” in paying their medical bills. In every industrialized country in the world, the population has access to healthcare through government agencies. The US is the only industrialized country to have privatized healthcare, where workers are dependent on their employer for this critical service.

A wave of attacks on healthcare, the new hires (two-tier) and pensions is going to hit the Northern California grocery workers and the defeat in Southern California already gives the companies confidence to continue these attacks. We are witnessing a crisis in American healthcare as well as in the labor movement. Only 11 percent of all workers are organized, the smallest percentage since 1900. If these waves of attacks continue to be successful as in Southern California, a serious step towards the third-worldization (or the Wal-martization) of the working class in the US will take place. Horrendous poverty, crime, the inequality of wealth, and even the degradation of the human spirit will characterize the coming period that has never been matched in our history.

The outcome of this crisis depends on what strategies will be implemented to defeat the grocery companies. If the UFCW keeps the Bay Area strike isolated in the Bay Area then it will suffer the same result as the Southern California strike. Safeway estimates that the Southern California strike cost the company $167.5 million in profits (involving 17% of Safeway stores) which is insignificant compared to the $10.5 billion dollars it earned in gross profit in 2003. The Southern California strike proved that determination from the ranks can’t be a substitute for a winning strategy by the union. The general assumption was that the Southern California grocery workers were not interested in participating in a labor conflict but 91% of the workers continued striking until the end. Worker’s apathy was not the responsible factor for such a horrific contract.

If the AFL-CIO begins to plan a national confrontation against the grocery companies, where all the responsible companies are struck until the end, and the community is mobilized to engage in serious militant picketing that will turn away shoppers, then we will see these waves of attacks reversed As the November elections approach, the AFL-CIO will donate millions upon millions to Kerry’s campaign and provide thousands of volunteers, which could be used to launch a real offensive against these companies.

The time has come for the millions of its members to stand up for a winning strategy because what is at stake affects more than the grocery industry. One hundred ten thousand CWA Phone workers might have to go on strike to protect their healthcare because the SBC phone company feels that since the Grocery companies were able to reduce what is acceptable that they can follow through the same path of attacking healthcare. SBC uses the same excuse of needing to cut expenses to stay competitive. They reported $8.5 billion dollars in profit in 2003 which is 5.7 billion more than the previous year.

No other working class in an industrialized country faces the hardships that workers face in the U.S. and no other industrialized country in the world has wealth comparable to what exists in this country. All the excuses about needing to cut costs to stay competitive are justifications for the rich to get richer. Nobody is going to fight this fight for the grocery workers or for any other section of the working class currently under attack. The workers must organize and fight for themselves and attempt to implement a winning strategy through their unions.

Could a new labor movement revive and change our present conditions? That depends on whether we can succeed in a couple of struggles as examples of how to win. With some successful examples, a union in movement can feel its potential power and explain how vulnerable the corporations really are. Until then, we will see the American working class subjected to an inevitable increase of misery and exploitation.





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