Grocery Strike Could Turn Into An Alley Fight, Says Wall Streeter
By Charles Walker
As the Southern California grocery strike enters its third week, the 70,000 strikers have heard bad news, good news and even astounding news from their United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) leadership.
The bad news was announced on October 24, when KABC, a Los Angeles TV station, reported, Picketing was suspended today at two distribution centers to minimize the financial impact on Teamsters who had been honoring picket lines in support of striking supermarket clerks, union officials said. The UFCW removed its pickets from the two locations, which serve as warehouse/distribution centers for Vons and Albertsons, effective at 6 a.m., said union spokeswoman Barbara Maynard.
Both the UFCW and the Teamsters had announced the picketing of the distribution centers, which supply the stores with most of their meat, produce and dry goods, just a week before with great fanfare.
More bad news came on November 1, when the UFCW announced it was withdrawing its pickets from Ralphs, which had locked-out its union workers. The workers remain locked-out and are to be dispatched to the other two chains, Vons (owned by Safeway) and Albertsons (own by American Foods). The removal of the pickets seemed predicated on taking advantage of the competitiveness of the chain stores.
However, its a well-established practice for food employers to buttress their agreements to stand together with a legally binding pact that requires a breakaway chain to pay indemnification to those that stay and fight the unions. The Los Angeles Times reports that Safeways boss recently told supermarket industry analysts that the three chains had agreed to share the financial burden of the strike, though he did not provide details. It doesnt seem smart to think that the chain store bosses didnt think to protect their united front against their workers from attempts by one chain to grab a competitive advantage from the two others.
The good news came when the strikers learned that the AFL-CIO had pledged to help fund their strike and further pledged to raise strike funds from its affiliated national unions. The labor federation said in a prepared statement, These workers are not alone, and have the support of the entire union movement and our allies.
The hard-to-believe news came when the UFCW announced it might take the strike national. The UFCW threatened to take the California strike national and set up pickets at Safeway stores across the country. Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, noted that by pulling pickets at Ralphs, the union has 18,000 locked-out members who could be deployed to other stores in Southern California or to other parts of the country.
Although the extension of primary lines to Safeway stores is legal, unions, in general, seldom take advantage of the solidarity of their entire membership by dispatching pickets from the primary struck area to the owners businesses in other areas. The reason is simply that the national union officialdom doesnt want to hurt its working relations with out-of-the-struck-area companies and local unions. Come to think of it, theyre seldom in a rush to hurt their long-term relationships (dues check-off and maintenance of membership, come to mind) with the bosses that they are striking.
So its not unusual for workers in one county to be drawing down their regular pay, while in the next county the owners of their stores are battling the membership of the same union. In the present case, the Northern California operations of the struck firms are conducting business as usual, even without the managers that have been dispatched to the south.
Theres no doubt that if the UFCW turned the regional strike into a national strike, theyd likely be catching the three chains off-guard. The resulting loss of business likely wouldnt have entered the bosses calculations and theyd have to reassess how much they want to invest in the shutdown and how long it would take to make back their investment.
One industry analyst said that spreading the strike would be strategically savvy. Taking the strike national he told the Los Angeles Times (Nov. 1) would take this from being a modest fight in the front yard to a full-scale brass-knuckle alley fight. Both the UFCW and the AFL-CIO tops have said that the grocery strikers are in a healthcare fight for all workers. If thats not just the customary hot air workers have come to expect from their officialdom, then the union leaders are going to have to take off their gloves and lead a brass-knuckle alley fight to win this round in the battle for decent and secure healthcare in the country. Keeping the strikers boxed-in within their region is exactly the wrong strategy for the grocery strikers and all workers.