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Grocery workers challenge leaders' strategy in El Monte
UFCW strike at crossroads

By Karl Swinehart and Gillian Russom | January 2, 2004 | Page 11

LOS ANGELES--In defiance of a decision made by leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), rank and file union members at a grocery distribution center near Los Angeles decided to maintain their picket line in the big Southern California supermarket strike and lockout. "That's where we work, that's where we stay, and no one can drag us out of here," explained Jim Davis, a UFCW member and a 27-year employee at Vons, which is owned by Safeway, Inc.

Following the union's call to pull the picket lines, UFCW Local 1167 President Bill Lathrop visited the distribution center in El Monte December 21 to convince workers to take down the picket line, but they refused. "Our general feeling down here is that we shouldn't have taken the [picket] lines down anywhere --stores, distribution centers--anywhere," UFCW member Matt Bruno told Socialist Worker. "Our local president knows he works for us now."

Following this bold stand by rank-and-filers, the UFCW and Teamsters modified their strategy and agreed to maintain picket lines at the four Vons distribution centers in Southern California--but not centers owned by Albertsons or Kroger Co.'s Ralphs stores, which locked out the UFCW after the union walked out at Vons and its sister chain, Pavilion.

At the Vons grocery distribution center in El Monte, UFCW meat cutters normally work side-by-side with members of the Teamsters union. UFCW members had been picketing grocery distribution centers for a month--and 8,000 Teamsters members refused to drive or load trucks that supply the markets.

Under pressure from the Teamsters leadership--which said their members want to return to work-- the UFCW announced that picket lines at distribution centers for all three chains would be removed the Monday before Christmas. UFCW leaders told their members that they were pulling the pickets as a "goodwill gesture" toward the companies in order to get negotiations restarted.

But that's meaningless to these giant corporations, which together control half the U.S. grocery industry-- and who joined forces to put 70,000 UFCW workers on the picket line. When the UFCW removed picket lines at Ralphs in October to try and divide the employers, the companies agreed to share profits for the duration of the strike/lockout.

Healthcare is also a central issue in this battle. The companies aim to make the employees shoulder the burden of rising health care costs through drastically increasing the amount employees pay for their benefits--putting coverage out of reach for thousands of the low wage and part time workers. 

These highly profitable corporations are asking their 70,000 Southern California UFCW members, in effect, to grandfather out the union through subcontracting and a two-tier wage system.

This strike has electrified the local labor movement and dozens of unions have been carrying out solidarity actions on a weekly basis. A spirited march of 8,000 strikers, led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Miguel Contreras, LA County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer, took the workers' message to Beverley Hills December 16.

Rick Icaza, UFCW Local 770 president, announced on the radio later that day that the assembled unions together put $4 million towards the workers' strike fund, that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has pledged to do a second "stop work" meeting in January, and that informational picketing at Safeway stores will extend to other parts of the country.

Yet these efforts are undermined by the union's own strategy of de-escalating the struggle where it matters most--at the distribution centers and outside the grocery stores themselves.

Moreover, UFCW's plans to cut members' strike pay in half on January 2, despite the large sums of money raised by union members in solidarity with the supermarket workers. Even worse, picketers at one Los Angeles Vons store showed Socialist Worker that the union had cut their pay without warning one week earlier, on the day after Christmas. Now most union members will be receiving only $100-$125 a week. The union also advised its members to look for other "interim employment." This level of hardship for strikers will undoubtedly create a sense of desperation and a willingness to accept any conclusion to the strike, even if it involves major concessions to the corporations.

This is why the action by rank-and-file workers at the El Monte distribution center is so important. As El Monte worker Jim Davis told Socialist Worker, "There is no goodwill with corporations. Us keeping the picket line up was a good decision. It's definitely good for morale. We took a stand. It may not have been a popular stand, but it shows people that we're serious. And we're here for the duration."

In deciding to keep their picket lines up, rank-and-file workers at the El Monte distribution center have taken a very important step forward in pushing for a more militant strike strategy--and more democracy in the union's decision making. The courageous stand by the UFCW strikers in El Monte shows that initiative by the rank and file to escalate the action is the key to winning this fight.

Maya de Leon, Bill Neal, and Randy Childs contributed to this article.

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