Striking Grocery Workers Meet the Free Market Nightmare

California Strike Enters Fourth Month

Revolutionary Worker#1230, February 22, 2004, posted at

In early October 2003, picket lines went up all over southern California, at many hundreds of grocery stores and supermarkets. 70,000 workers went on strike against a number of the largest food retail corporations. The strikes hit the Vons and Pavilions stores owned by Safeway. Two other chains, Kroger- owned Ralphs supermarkets and Albertson's, locked out their union workers.

As people turned in to the parking lots to go shopping, they met workers carrying picket signs, who leaned in the car windows and asked everyone to go shop somewhere else. These corporations, the strikers explained, were slashing away the lives of the workers with completely outrageous demands for cutbacks.

These are times when workers' strikes have been rare, and when corporations act like they own the world. And so the hundreds of pickets lines, day after day over four hard months in hundreds of communities and neighborhoods, have provoked a lot of discussion--and attracted a lot of support.

A Heartless Attack

"I started 20 years ago at Alpha Beta supermarkets, which later became Ralphs. I thought I'd spend my career at this. There were great opportunities, great health benefits. I was being promoted and was being looked at to be a key person. I thought I could retire with them. They never gave me any indication that they were going to take all these things away."

Striking bakery manager

It is a sign of the times that this hard strike is not over winning any improvements in the workers' lives--but just to hold on to whatever they already have.

The unionized jobs in these supermarket chains are often considered "good jobs" by the workers who have them. These workers have been part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the previous contracts guaranteed workers a relatively stable living--with benefits like health care and wages that have been around $19 an hour. This situation is exactly what the supermarket chains are determined to end.

Their cold-blooded attack has shocked and outraged the workers.

The issue everyone on the picket line mentions is health care. The supermarket conglomerates no longer want to guarantee a certain level of benefits. Currently, as costs go up, the company pays the increase. And health care costs are going through the roof (compared to the overall rate of inflation), so continuing health care is considered too expensive by the employers. The employers want a situation where the workers now would pay 100% of any increased cost.

Typically, the supermarket owners' propaganda calls this a "modest adjustment" to benefits. One union rep explained how these costs would grow under current trends: "That same family that would be paying $15 a week at the beginning of the three-year contract would be paying $95 a week by the end. They want to shift the burden to the employee--any time there is a medical increase, the employee bears the burden."

This means that the health coverage of workers and their families would shrink with each passing year. According to Business Week magazine, this supermarket strike is one of over 90 "labor disputes" where health care benefits have been a burning issue.

In addition, the corporate proposals want to create a "two-tier workforce"--where future, newly hired workers will not get the wages and benefits that current workers have. They are demanding a salary cap at under $15 an hour for new workers. Health care benefits would also be "tiered."

By the third year, newly hired workers would increase to $6,000 less in benefits than upper-tier workers. Any by then up to 30% of the workers are expected to be in that lower tier.

Under this "two-tier" plan, the workforce in this industry will over time lose the wages and benefits they have previously earned. And in the meantime, there would be a whole divide-and- conquer atmosphere of resentments and divided interests.

The Pressure of Wal-Mart-ization

For the grocery corporations, these heartless demands are "just business." They claim they are just trying to survive stiff competition by lowering "labor costs." They point to Wal-Mart -- the giant that is looming across retail industries in the U.S. and neighboring Mexico.

Wal-Mart "Supercenters" now include full supermarkets, making Wal-Mart the biggest grocer in the U.S. Wal-Mart's workers are non-unionized, and Wal-Mart is notorious for firing anyone trying to organize the workers there. The typical Wal-Mart grocery worker makes less than $9 an hour. Over half of its employees can't afford the Wal-Mart health plan, with a $3000 deductible.

In addition Wal-Mart has worked to take maximum advantage of the extreme exploitation of workers in oppressed countries. Sixty percent of its merchandise comes from factories in Asia and Latin America.

Isabel Reyes, a garment worker in Honduras, told the L.A. Times about relentless 10-hour workdays sewing sleeves on 1,200 polo shirts a day--for $35 a week. Each polo shirt she sews sells at Wal- Mart for $8.63.

In short, the workings of capitalism mean that capitalists who enforce the lowest wages become pacesetters for whole industries. The worsening conditions in one place become the basis for aggressively lowering workers' conditions everywhere else.

The unionized grocery workers were told by the grocery chain owners to give up wages and health care benefits--and to accept conditions "competitive" with Wal-Mart. The workers and their union decided to fight.

Meanwhile the logic of the capitalists was expressed by a stock analyst with Wall Street's Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. He said that breaking the resistance of the grocery workers would be "one of the best investments food retailers could make," adding that any victory over the workers was "likely to continue to pay off over a number of years."

Struggle and Support

"I work for Ralphs. I'm a service deli manager. For me it's been real hard. I have a mortgage and a car. I had to return my car, and right now I'm just struggling on my mortgage and the bills are really killing me... I just want them to know that I'm not going to give up either. I'm going to stay here to the end. It takes what it takes. We are here because they want to take away our pensions, cut our benefits halfway, and reduce our pay. If they win this fight, a lot of other people are going to suffer."

Striker named Carlos, talking to the RW

The strike has now gone on for four months. The workers have marched on picket lines every day, held rallies together with their supporters, marched in parades on Martin Luther King's birthday, endured arrests and police harassment and kept their strike alive. They have organized events to create public opinion--including staging protests on Wall Street and outside the mansions of supermarket executives in Northern California.

The targeted chains have continued to keep their stores open--using managers and strikebreakers. The picket lines have generally not stopped the scabs from going to work.

Police arrested several picketers and supporters during militant picketing in Orange County. In Huntington Beach police tried to get a special law passed to restrict sticks on picket signs, but were turned down when the proposal was publicized.

At the same time, many people who buy groceries have honored the picket lines. Many have shown support by bringing doughnuts and coffee to the picketers and making donations to the strike funds. Parking lots at the targeted chains clearly have fewer cars than usual. Some companies that supply the three struck supermarket chains have reduced operations because fewer goods are being sold.

One worker at a Pavilions in Beverly Hills said she sees her old customers when she shops at Gelson's, a supermarket that is not on strike. The King Ranch Market chain has had a 25% jump in business.

A significant strike support movement has been built among college students, activists, lawyers, teachers, Teamsters, actors, musicians and members of other unions.

The prominent actor/activist Danny Glover and the progressive comedians Ellen Degeneres and Janeane Garafolo have spoken out in support of the strikers. Guitarist Tom Morello and the band Audioslave played a strike benefit at Hollywood's Roxy Theater. Local unions sponsored a huge support rally of many thousands of workers at the Inglewood Forum in late January. Members of the National Lawyers Guild and other lawyers groups have marched on picket lines.

Some supporters have staged disruptions that they call "Shop & Awe," where they fill carts with groceries in a struck store and leave them clogging the aisles and checkout lines, while agitating about the strike's just goals.

A recent Critical Mass bike ride of 40 cyclists took a tour of supermarket picket lines and at the last couple stores decided to go in. About 20 riders rode their bikes through the aisles chanting, "Don't shop at Vons, support the strike!"

The teachers union has an "adopt-a-store" program, where members give money and march on picket lines at their neighborhood grocery stores.

In January, the dock workers' International Longshore and Warehouse Union pledged $1 million to pay for health care costs of the striking grocery workers, since the companies stopped payments to the employees' benefit fund during the strike.


The outcome of the strike is not clear. It has been estimated that the grocery corporations have already lost $1 billion in sales revenue--putting great pressure on them to back away from their plans.

There have been no negotiations since November. On February 4, the supermarkets rejected an offer from the union negotiators to submit the whole dispute to binding arbitration (i.e., the procedure where a supposedly impartial third party acts as a judge and imposes a settlement). As we are going to press, plans have been made to meet with a federal mediator.

The workers have so far rejected the arrogant "take-it-or-leave-it" postures of their corporate employers--who simply expect everyone to work at whatever starvation wages global capitalism imposes. The workers have rejected a future where they are divided sharply into tiers, where conditions only get worse over time, where health care is unaffordable, where paychecks don't cover bills and where working people are simply disposable. And their just struggle has won them broad support.