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On the picket line

February 4, 2005 | Page 11

Bay Area grocery workers
By Marcia Thorndike, UFCW Local 101 (retired)

SAN FRANCISCO--Eight Bay Area United Food and Commercial Worker (UFCW) locals reached a tentative agreement with supermarket giants Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger January 24.

Although the tentative contract contains significant concessions that will impact veteran employees as well as new hires, UFCW spokesperson Ron Lind expressed confidence that a vast majority of members would ratify it by mail-in ballot in early February.

Changes for current employees include higher costs for doctor's visits and prescriptions, reduction in Sunday premium and holiday pay, doubling of progression time for wage increases, and lower company contributions to pension and health and welfare funds. New hires will now have to wait five months for health coverage and 18 months for family coverage, spend four years working full time to reach top pay in an industry where full-time is rarely offered, and receive permanent lower Sunday premium-rate pay.

Lind characterized the contract as "a good deal for workers," claiming that it avoids a permanent two-tier wage structure and maintains good benefits. "And they didn't have to walk a picket line for four-and-a-half months or more to get it," he added, referring to the four-and-a-half month strike/lockout of 59,000 Southern California UFCW employees at the same three grocery chains a year ago. The strike ended when workers accepted a contract with devastating cuts, including two-tier wages and monthly medical premiums.

Immediately following the Southern California debacle, newly appointed UFCW International President Joseph Hansen announced a strategy to combat the employers' obvious advantage of using the profits from other stores in their mega-chains to insulate themselves from the economic harm of even the most successful picket lines in any one region. "We must coordinate our national strength against employers who are using their national resources in an effort to ratchet down UFCW member wages and benefits," said Hansen.

But Hansen's words proved to be pure rhetoric. Since March 2004, there have been numerous opportunities to bolster the UFCW's bargaining strength by linking simultaneous regional struggles, but no coordination occurred. Instead, UFCW locals across the country accepted concessions in contract after contract with hardly a fight, driven by the assumption that strikes can't win and that UFCW workers must accept concessions.

By January, every other regional contract had been settled except the Bay Area. The eight Bay Area locals spent a year and a half gearing up members and the public for a tough contract battle, yet striking seemed to be out of the question.

Fear of a long, losing strike and the idea that concessions are required due to the "economic climate" make the contract acceptable to many, but not all Bay Area supermarket workers. "It's wrong to walk into negotiations with the attitude we have to accept concessions," said Mike Mulligan, a 27-year veteran meatcutter. "Between them, these three companies saw their profit rise 91 percent in the last five years, and what did we get? The union should be calling a mass meeting so we can get the word out about how bad the contract is, not lots of little meetings and a mail-in vote. That's a divide-and-conquer strategy."

Activist voices like these can continue to challenge the ideas that strikes can't win and workers must suffer and sacrifice because they are partners with their employer in the profit-making business.

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New York City private bus line drivers
By Megan Behrent

NEW YORK--After 10 days on strike, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 1179 and 1181 who work at Green Bus Lines in Queens and Command Bus Lines in Brooklyn returned to work January 20 after their union leadership negotiated a settlement with the city.

The settlement provides workers with $1,000 each upon ratification of the deal as well as a retroactive 3-percent raise covering last year. In return, the union agreed to not oppose the scheduled takeover of the two bus lines by the city and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in the coming months.

The takeover has caused anxiety among workers concerned about ensuring their job security and health benefits. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg had frequently insisted that he wouldn't agree to retroactive raises or any new contracts without productivity gains, his fear that a continuing strike would give him bad press in an election year put pressure on him to settle quickly.

Unfortunately, there was no mention about job security--one of the key issues that led workers to strike in the first place--leading led some workers to voice frustration. Many of the workers on the picket line worked more than one job just to get by. For them, the strike was about far more than just raises but about the right to a decent union job, which could allow them and their families to live in a city where the cost of living is soaring.

The 10-day strike showed the power of organized rank-and-file workers who run these bus lines, but the fight is far from over. As the MTA takeover approaches, rank-and-file workers will have to continue organizing to demand guarantees of job security and benefits.

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