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Misleaders’ Strategy Undermines Grocery Strike

by Charles Walker Tuesday, Jan. 06, 2004 at 8:40 PM

"The strategy of relying on token informational pickets in in northern California, rather than extending the strike, is part of a loosing strategy by the UFCW bureaucrats that is defeating the strike. With a defeat in southern California it will be easy to extract concessions here. Victory will only come through real solidarity, with a militant rank and file class struggle leadership in the union that challenges the career bureaucrats for the continued life of the union!" --Steve Argue

Misleaders’ Strategy Undermines Grocery Strike

By Charles Walker

On December 19, 2003, negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), representing 70,000 southern California strikers, announced that that very day they had offered 0 million in concessions in health care costs over three years to settle the strike/lockout involving three major grocery chains, but the chains rejected the offer. The offered concessions fell short of the billion in health care reductions that, according to union officials, the supermarket owners are seeking.

The three supermarket chains are also demanding the reduction of wages and benefits for new hires. Over the past two decades grocery workers across the nation have experienced a sharp decline in average wages, reductions in work hours, and the loss of work to vendors. The loss of a billon dollars in health care benefits would quickly mean that the strikers’ jobs would be little better than many so-called living wage jobs, as many grocery workers’ jobs already are in other parts of the country.

Sadly, more than two months into the strike/lockout that began October 11 it may not be too soon to declare the grocery strike lost. The grocery chains, separately owned by Kroger, Albertsons, and Safeway, have outfought the strikers, even though to date the companies’ immediate losses in sales and unannounced strike expenses run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Seemingly, the three corporations are prepared to spend much more than that to win the strike.

By handing the strikers a major defeat, the supermarket owners probably expect to win further concessions from the UFCW and the Teamsters union without further “labor disruptions”—as other contracts are negotiated in the months and years ahead. Wall Street analysts said at the start that the firms were out to win a major victory over their unionized workforce.

If the strikers are badly defeated, that is, if they are forced to give the three corporations what they are demanding; the loss should not be blamed on the rank-and-file workers. The grocery strikers have shown great courage and stamina in their fight. No doubt they possess the qualities needed for an all-out fight. But they have been handicapped.

Membership Participation?

To what extent were rank-and-file union members included in decision making about the strike? Although the rank-and-file members were able to vote on the question of rejecting the companies’ contract offer—which 95% of those voting did—and they also voted to strike, there’s no evidence that they voted to offer the supermarkets any concessions. Nor is there evidence that they voted to remove their pickets not once but twice from the chains’ distribution centers, allowing the Teamsters to return to work. Nor did they vote to remain cooped up rather than extend the strike.

The union’s tops have made all the strategic decisions from the strike’s first day. It’s not clear that the strikers would have made different decisions. Still, it seems reasonable to expect that many of the strikers, if not a majority, after gaining hands-on experience for a month or two, would not have been inclined to maintain the failed strategy that has governed the strike from day one.

The main elements of that strategy consisted in (1) not impacting the grocery barons’ profits, except in Southern California; (2) attempting to take advantage of the chains’ mutual rivalry for profits, at the same time that the firms have erected a united front to deal with their unionized workers; and (3) relying on token picket lines, not massive lines capable of halting deliveries by union and nonunion vendors alike.

The corporations told the UFCW more than a year ago to expect major demands for concessions, and the bosses went on to prepare financially for the anticipated strike by the union. The three supermarket chains even agreed to share financially the hazards and losses of a strike. With this solidarity established among the bosses, the hiring of scabs and the importation of management teams from other areas was comparatively small potatoes.

All of the employers’ preparations were known to the union’s officialdom when the strikers hit the bricks. Yet from day one, the union attempted to portray Kroger and Albertsons as not as bad as Safeway, so it only struck Safeway. Kroger, doing business as Ralphs, and Albertsons simultaneously locked out their UFCW members the same day the strike began. That didn’t sway the union’s strategists, who two weeks into the strike removed their pickets from Kroger/Ralphs supermarkets and encouraged consumers to shop there. Reportedly, the Kroger chain has agreed to share its profits with Safeway and Albertsons.

The union has not attempted to create massive picket lines at any of the chains’ 852 stores, nor at the Teamster-organized distribution warehouses, a vital link in the stores’ supply lines. Even when the UFCW sent pickets to two of the warehouses, they didn’t attempt to halt the flow of meat, produce, and dry goods that scabs began delivering. Two weeks into the strike the UFCW removed its pickets, and Teamsters returned to their jobs, delivering their cargo to the supermarkets’ driveways, where management and scab drivers took the keys and backed the rigs up to the loading docks.

In a turnabout just before Thanksgiving, the UFCW posted pickets at all ten union warehouses supplying the supermarkets in southern California. The 8,000 Teamsters were advised by their officials to keep away from the picket lines, which in the main they did. Then on December 19 the UFCW once again removed their pickets “as a goodwill gesture,” and later that same day the companies rejected the union’s concessions, breaking off talks, initiated by a federal mediator.

If the strike had been extended to much of the nation, costing the grocery corporations far more than they had budgeted, perhaps their shareholders and creditors would by now have had second thoughts. As it is, the workers’ finances—which while working meant for many living from paycheck to paycheck—have got to be stretched thin, and, understandably, they may be entertaining thoughts about settling for what the bosses are willing to offer.

Seemingly, the grocery corporations are prepared financially to endure the strike/lockout for many more weeks. Obviously the workers are not similarly financed. John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, has failed to raise the massive funds necessary to keep broke strikers on the token picket lines, stave off evictions or ensure needed health care.

To this day, while strikers walk picket lines, other grocery workers in adjoining counties report to work each day. Yes, those workers have contracts (to be renegotiated next year in some cases), but it is entirely legal for them to honor picket lines of other sanctioned pickets.

To this day, the union has refused to damage the three chains’ profits further by picketing those stores. It’s true the union has sent token teams of “informational pickets” to a few stores owned by Safeway in northern California and the Washington, D.C., area, but the results have been meager. In contrast, a few years ago Safeway workers in northern California struck, and Safeway’s stores were virtually abandoned by shoppers. However, informational pickets don’t stop many consumers, don’t stop deliveries by unionized drivers, and of course, don’t stop the employed UFCW workforce from daily continuing to contribute to Safeway’s revenue stream.

These days labor victories are rare, but as the 1997 UPS struggle showed, they are not only possible; they attract the attention of other workers, organized or not, and inspire them. That attention and inspiration may well have become emulation after the UPS strike were it not for the government’s removal of the Ron Carey leadership of the Teamsters union. But labor victories will not occur as long as the outlook of a strike’s policymakers resembles those of the grocery workers’ leadership.

No doubt, the strike has been marked by tactical errors and mistakes. But more importantly the strike has been undermined by the UFCW officialdom’s strategy of refusing to wage an all-out fight, despite the supermarket owners’ outrageous provocations.

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