Los Angeles Critical Mass Rides Through Vons
For the forty or so cyclists who arrived Friday night for the monthly critical mass ride, the route was easily agreed upon. “Vons tour, we need to support the strikers!”, yelled an unidentified women on a bike. Before the ride was over three stores owned by the parent company of the striking workers, Safeway, were visited including two where the cyclists entered and rode through the store.
The grocery workers union (http://www.ufcw.org) called the strike on October 11th, 2003 in response to the company’s implementation of salary caps and significantly reduced health care coverage. The CEO of the Vons-Safeway company, Steven Burd, has stated that the cuts are necessary to brace for the future when multiple Wal-Mart Super Centers will be opening in Southern California. Wal-Mart, the home of low wages, minimal health care, and union busting has pushed the limits for how poorly every corporation must treat their workers in order to compete. Wal-mart purposefully employs mostly part-time workers at minimal wages and limited hours. Even during times of record profit gains they have a system set up for their employees to apply for welfare. In addition to the poor treatment of workers, the wal-martization of local communities has led to an increase in the gap between rich and poor, lowered environmental standards, and increased urban sprawl.
These were just a few of the reasons stated by the critical mass cyclists for supporting the workers. “This is about corporations doing what they can to increase profits for themselves and to treat workers however they please. If these employees lose then other corporations are going to come down on their workers.” Another LA resident on the bike ride told me how she has watched local businesses go under after a Wal-Mart opened up near her. “I want people to know that Wal-Mart is not the role model for how a business should be run,” she added.
Entering the parking lot of the Vons at Sunset and Hillhurst, the critical mass group chanted, “Don’t cross the line, boycott Vons”. After circling the parking lot once to the cheers of the picketing strikers, someone yelled, “Let’s ride into the store!” It was one of those amazing things to watch- when the energy of an event takes over and everyone seems to be doing what should of been obvious to do. Half of the bicyclists, about twenty or so, entered the store in a single file line and proceeded to ride down various aisles, simultaneously chanting “Don’t shop at Vons, support the strike!” Employees and customers alike stood dumbfounded as the group, with helmets on and lights blinking, made their way out of the store and back into the parking lot.
The energy level remained high as the mass pedaled its way to the next closest Vons, at Vermont and Third. The Sunset store must have called ahead because this store was ready when the group arrived. Doors were blocked by the strike-breaking employees and the cycling group was kept from entering the store. Laps were done in the parking lot by some while others talked with the striking workers about their situation. After a short while the group headed north on Vermont to a Pavilions, also owned by Safeway, for a short visit.
Entering the store immediately, the group was as energized as ever. Chants of “Don’t shop here, support the workers!” were suddenly drowned out by yells of “Lock the doors, don’t let them out!” About a dozen people on bike were stranded inside. Employees, and even customers, tried to grab the cyclists as others dialed the police. One group headed out an emergency exit in the back, but this exit was quickly blocked by the scabs. Meanwhile, in the front of the store, critical massers and strikers pounded on the doors and chanted, “Let them out!” demanding that the scabs stop unlawfully detaining the strike supporters. The current employees, who have turned their backs to the union, threatened the outside group with violence. Another group from the inside had managed to sneak out by the time the police helicopter arrived overhead, spotlight and all.
Numerous police cars then arrived and the situation intensified. The last person stuck inside was let out, no questions asked, but the managers started pointing people out. One person, a third year law student who had been openly calling out the police on their ignorance of the law, was suddenly accosted and handcuffed. He was taken away and charged with battery. Apparently a manager claimed that he had kicked him when struggling to exit the store, but the young lawyer-to-be was never stuck inside the store. The charges should eventually be dropped. Overall, the feeling among the critical mass participants was that their autonomous action drew attention to the situation and creatively showed the strikers that, yes, there are many people who support them. While the corporations refuse to back down, autonomous actions by small groups are becoming more and more necessary.