UFCW officials' failed strategy led workers into a dead end
By Gillian Russom | March 5, 2004 | Page 11
LOS ANGELES--After four months and 18 days on strike and locked out, grocery workers in Southern California voted February 28 to accept a new three-year contract. Voting on the contract was confined to a single day in which the workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), received the contract and had to decide how to vote.
Although 59,000 workers were involved in the strike and lockout, just 17,000 votes were required to approve the contract--and union leaders claimed an 86 percent "yes" vote. The contract gives in on almost all the major demands by the nation's biggest grocery chains--Kroger Co., owner of the Ralphs chain in Southern California; Safeway Inc., which operates Vons and Pavilions stores in the region, and the Albertsons Inc. chain.
On health care--the key issue in the strike--the contract gives the companies a 50 percent share in administering the health-care fund, which had previously been union-run. The deal caps employers' contributions to the fund, which means that employees will pay all future increases in health care costs beyond a specified amount.
The contract also establishes a two-tier wage scale, which will lower the top pay for new hires by $2.80 for food clerks and meat cutters and $1.12 for meat clerks. Under the old contract, top pay was $17.90 for a veteran workers.
The new wage scales also reduce the company's contributions to the pension fund by 42 cents per hour per employee, which will affect the retirement of all workers. The contract offers no raises, but instead gives senior employees two lump-sum payments, worth about $500 each for full-time workers.
Workers who attended the contract ratification meetings were furious to hear that Safeway may lay off any workers at Vons with less than 10 years' seniority, and that the union plans to take no punitive action against its members who crossed the picket line.
Unless unions can mount a stronger fight, the deal is expected to set a pattern for grocery contracts in Northern California--set to expire this summer--and around the country. Workers overwhelmingly approved the contract--not because they are satisfied with it, but because they are in desperate financial straits after a long strike.
Maria Carpio, a Ralph's employee for eight years, spoke with Socialist Worker on the day of the ratification vote. "We've struggled so hard. You can see the skin is peeling on my face from so many weeks outdoors," she said. "I almost lost my car. I had to leave my apartment because they kicked me out just for paying the rent three days late. I'm not very happy [with the contract] but it's better than nothing. We cannot afford to stay on strike so I voted 'yes.'"
Luis Sanchez, 35, who has worked for the grocery companies since he was 17, told Socialist Worker, "They [the companies] caught us in the wallet. We need the money so I signed yes. All my money's gone. These guys [the corporations] are pretty smart. I'm a full-timer. With the two-tier system, there's not going to be enough for my retirement. I'm 35 years old, I can't start [a new career] all over again."
Caleb and Alicia Romero, both Vons employees, brought their two children, Anthony and Israel, to the ratification vote. Israel has severe asthma, and they brought his respirator and medication with them to show just how important the struggle for health care really is.
"I'm here to thank my brothers and sisters for being out there every day, no matter the weather. I tell my kids every night that these are my heroes," said Alicia, pointing to a picture of the strikers in the newspaper. "The outcome wasn't what it should have been, especially knowing that the scabs got amnesty."
Although some workers believed that a defeat was inevitable given the strength of the grocery companies, Adrian, a Ralphs employee, disagreed. "If the union was stronger, we could have gotten something better. They need to get rid of the leadership--Icaza and his cronies. We're going to have a meeting to talk about reforming our union."
Although workers are demoralized and worried about returning to work after a defeat, they have learned a tremendous amount from this struggle. They have built bonds of solidarity with their coworkers, and some have become convinced of the need to be more active. "This will teach people to go more to the [union] meetings to know what's going on," said Sanchez. "This experience has shown us that we have to be involved in the union."
Inspiring solidarity that was wasted
WHEN THE grocery strike started October 10, the political climate changed in Southern California seemingly overnight. Suddenly there were picket lines in every neighborhood, and class politics was front and center in public debate. The last four months of labor struggle have shown us the best and worst of what's possible for the labor movement and gives every labor activist a lot to think about.
The support for the grocery workers was tremendous. Not only did customers respect the picket lines, but the strike also electrified the local labor movement. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union used its right to hold a "stop work" meeting to shut down the nation's biggest harbor for a mass rally that shut down an Albertsons store. Union janitors refused to cross the picket lines.
My own union, United Teachers Los Angeles, raised $60,000 for the strikers and their families and countless individuals gave food, money and time to the picket lines. I was one of many activists in the LA labor movement who volunteered to mobilize turnout in our unions for several mass rallies to support the grocery workers.
Things I had only read about in labor history books were happening in real time--the labor movement actually felt like a movement! UFCW Local 1442 in Santa Monica organized mass picket lines that repeatedly shut down stores. But that, sadly, was an exception.
The UFCW did not even keep up pickets up at Ralphs stores, when they should have been spreading picket lines across the country. And the UFCW itself couldn't get all its locals around the country to support the Southern California solidarity effort.
There were some examples of solidarity on the picket lines, however. The Teamsters' supported the strike during the month before Thanksgiving, honoring UFCW picket lines and distribution centers and paying strike benefits to the Teamsters who were affected.
When the strike failed to settle by Thanksgiving, however, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa saw to it that the UFCW removed picket lines. Yet at a Vons distribution center in El Monte, members of UFCW Local 1167 refused to take down their picket lines in December--and the Teamsters in that facility refused to cross. Unfortunately, union leaders were able to contain this rebellion and the Teamsters' deliveries continued as usual.
This strike will be a watershed for the labor movement. Union officials intent on avoiding a confrontation with management will point to this strike as an example of what will happen if workers dare to reject concessions.
The rank and file needs to take a different lesson. As Kathleen Doyle, picket captain of Echo Park Vons said, "I can only hope that as people begin to see what has happened with this strike and the effects it will have on others in the workforce that they fully understand our struggle, their coming struggle and prepare to make difficult choices for change."
Our unions need to fight to win. If the leadership won't do it, the rank and file needs to be organized enough to make it happen.