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Grocery Settlement at What Cost?

by John Reimann Saturday, Feb. 28, 2004 at 5:32 PM

It appears that the proposed contract settlement will be at a huge cost to future employees. Would that the leadership matched the membership in determination and courage!

The news is out that the grocery chains and the UFCW have reached a tentative agreement. The exact terms of the agreement have not been disclosed, but it is already reported that there will be large cuts in pay for new workers. There will also be other cuts, especially in health care coverage, for present workers and probably for retirees.

It may be that some of the worst demands of the employers have been partially warded off for current employees. To whatever degree this is so, it is totally due to the tremendous determination and fighting spirit of the 60,000 striking and locked-out grocery workers. Hundreds of these workers lost their homes. Some have been sleeping in their cars. Yet the overwhelming majority of them remained strong. Their courage and determination are an inspiration for working class people and for young people.

It is not clear whether this proposal will be accepted. One union official was quoted as saying: "The wild card in this whole thing is, Do the members ratify it? At best the members are going to be disillusioned when they see the settlement. At worst they will be outraged." (Contra Costa Times, 2/27)

There is only one way to explain this: That the courage and determination of the rank and file was not matched by that of the leadership. From the very first, the union leadershp’s strategy was to contain this struggle. They initially sought to fight these national chains on a regional basis. Then, they initiated picketing in some areas of just one of these chains (Safeway), putting forward the fiction that the whole fight was caused by one individual - Seve Burd, head of Safeway. They refused to call for a nation-wide strike of all the chains. They refused to broaden the campaign to being one for free health care for all - thus appealing to many of the shoppers who crossed the Safeway picket lines.

Some of the most simple basic steps were not taken. For instance, the leaflet that was given the pickets to hand out to the general public in Northern California remained unchanged for the months of the strike. It was simply a letter from a liberal Congressman. There was nothing else dealing with the lies and distortions of the grocery chains. Another example: A spokesman of Local 10 of the ILWU went on record as offering to refuse to cross picket lines of ships which were bringing goods to Safeway (and by extension, to Albertsons also). This offer was ignored. And a serious campaign to raise strike support money from the rest of the work force was never undertaken.

We hope that the worst of the concessions were warded off by the striking workers. However, it must be stressed that we now have but one more contract that contains concessions. Maybe (although this is unlikely) these are only minor concessions. Maybe (more probable) they are pretty significant. The main point, though, is: “When will this all stop?” When will we reverse course and stop losing ground and start regaining some of what we’ve lost over the last 25 years?

After five months on strike, the Southern California grocery workers are in a very difficult situation. We are not in this situation, but if we were, we would be urging our brothers and sisters to vote “no” on this contract. But not o nly vote “no” but also to consciously and systematically organize to help transform the union and the entire labor movement. We all need a union leadership that boldly and decisively mobilizes its entire membership, as well as the community, to shut down production in order to win what we need and improve the lives of working class people in this country and the world over.

We also urge the anti-capitalist left to unite in order to help build a serious opposition within the unions.

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