D.C. grocery workers agree to big concessions
By Jeff Bale | April 9, 2004 | Page 11
WASHINGTON--Workers at Safeway Inc. and Giant Food Inc. supermarkets overwhelmingly approved a new four-year contract March 30. Well over 10,000 employees turned out for two back-to-back meetings to hear the details of the agreement and vote.
The contract was hailed as a victory by the leaders of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, by the media and by many workers themselves. A strike like that in Southern California was "averted" and the union "held the line" on health care, the argument goes.
But closer inspection of the details reveals a defeat. Current workers' health care deductibles increase from $100 to $200 a year. While workers still pay no monthly premium for health coverage, the cap on out-of-pocket expenses was raised from $2,500 to $4,000 per year, and the companies will contribute less for prescription drug coverage.
In addition, workers got a paltry 30 cents an hour raise each year--below the rate of inflation. What's more, new hires are not eligible for equal pay and full benefits until they have worked for six years.
New employees will get pay differentials for Sunday and holiday work of just an extra $1 per hour, compared to time-and-a-half pay under the new contract. Those new workers will have to wait 60 months until their pay differentials reach top levels.
Given the high rate of turnover in grocery work, this ensures the companies greater profits over the long haul as new hires who earn less become the majority. Karen, a Safeway worker from Waldorf, Md., described the bosses' strategy clearly. "They won't lower prices [for customers] if they cut our benefits. It all just goes in their pockets," she told Socialist Worker.
The turnout of over 12,000 workers at the two meetings--many bused in from outlying areas--underscore how much was at stake with this contract. Yet workers were told nothing about the deal until they arrived that morning. They heard a speech by Local 400's president, Jimmy Lowthers, and then agreed to a standing voice vote.
Given this lack of preparation, only a handful of Safeway workers stayed seated during the vote, indicating a "no," along with some 200 Giant workers. But given the UFCW's disastrous handling of the Southern California strike and lockout, it's not surprising that workers voted to take the deal.
Local pundits argue that the strike in California--along with Local 400's own losing battle against Kroger Co. in West Virginia last fall--deeply impacted both sides in negotiations. They suggest the companies weren't pushing so hard this time on health care costs and that the union didn't take as strong a stand.
In fact, this contract not only makes concession on health care, but also sells out the next generation of workers who will no longer be able to make a living wage working for these companies. Until labor leaders are pushed by an organized rank and file to do more, we run the risk of more "victories" like these.