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Grocery Strikers’ Heroic Fight for Healthcare

by by Muffy Sunde Thursday, Mar. 25, 2004 at 6:56 PM
lafsprw6@aol.com

In the end, workers who had fought so hard for five months were forced to accept a raw deal. They were unable to prevail against a bold united front of employers when their own leaders were not willing to organize an equally bold united front of labor.

On March 1st, 59,000 members of United Food and Commercial Workers in Southern California concluded the first major strike of the 21st century, and the longest in UFCW’s history.

The battle began on October 11, after three grocery chains, all with deep pockets, went to war against seven UFCW locals, demanding a contract with major take-aways, especially on the healthcare front. The triumvirate was cheered by Wall Street.

The grocery workers, finding themselves quite by accident on the front lines of a national war to force down wages and benefits to Wal-Mart levels, rose to the challenge like champions. Relatively low-paid, mostly women and people of color, they rallied support from Los Angeles to New York City. Their picket lines emptied stores and cost grocers billion.

But in the end, workers who had fought so hard for five months were forced to accept a raw deal. They were unable to prevail against a bold united front of employers when their own leaders were not willing to organize an equally bold united front of labor.

As the dust settles, the strike’s lessons are still being sorted out. One is clearly that the entire labor movement needs to see unionizing Wal-Mart and nationalizing healthcare as do-or-die fights.

For the ranks, another key lesson is that union leaders like those of the UFCW and AFL-CIO would rather sacrifice wages and benefits than risk losing control over their membership by calling them into the streets. Other major contract battles are looming. Now is the time for rank-and-filers to get organized and push their officers either to do what it takes to win these fights or to step aside and make way for new leaders who will.

Contract: new hires get the shaft. Going into the strike, the stakes were high. Despite clearing billion in combined profits, Vons/Safeway, Albertson’s, and Ralphs/Krogers entered negotiations claiming they must compete with Wal-Mart, the superstore notorious for low wages and unionbusting.

Courtney Williams, a deli employee at Albertson’s and picket leader from UFCW Local 1442 in Los Angeles, summarized the situation going into the strike: “Like most people, they’ll only give me part-time, and I make .85 an hour. My weekly take-home is 7. The stores’ proposal would freeze my wages for three years, plus cost me weekly for healthcare the first year. By the third year I’d have to pay a week for my medical. How can I live on what’s left?”

While the final contract improves on the original offer, it doesn’t save affordable healthcare, as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney claims in a rosy press statement.

The most serious setback is a two-tier system that gouges new hires, who will earn to per hour less to start and to per hour less at the top end of the scale. They aren’t eligible for health benefits until a year after hire and will pay more for reduced benefits. Dependents won’t be eligible for 30 months.

Outrageously, the contract settlement doesn’t provide for every striker’s return to work. It allows the three grocery chains to fire up to 30 members each and requires UFCW to drop 35,000 unemployment claims for members locked out by Ralphs and Albertson’s.

Rallying around the cause. Everyone knew Southern California was a key battleground in the nationwide struggle to retain healthcare for all workers. Unions and community groups came out in force to help UFCW win.

Union locals large and small gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the strike. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor mobilized huge rallies; longshore workers attended one en masse, closing the port. Huge numbers of customers, worried about their own healthcare, took their shopping elsewhere.

The National Lawyers Guild trained picketers as to their legal rights. Antiwar, student, and community groups, among them the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, walked picket lines and raised money around the country.

The strikers themselves engaged in creative and defiant tactics, including roving picket lines. Local 1442, one of the most democratic and militant of the locals, reached out to the community and invited groups including Radical Women to speak at rallies and meetings.

Union leaders fail to rise to the occasion. But all of this was not enough. And, after five months, strikers could not keep holding out. In January, most lost their health coverage and half of their strike pay. Locked-out employees were refused unemployment benefits. However, what ultimately undercut the strikers was conservative union leadership.

From the get-go, the supermarket giants pooled their resources and got support from banks and Wall Street. They recognized this as a class battle.

In contrast, UFCW leaders failed to develop a national multi-union strategy even though the outcome would be felt nationally. They didn’t try to shut down all three grocers and their warehouses or utilize the AFL-CIO’s considerable resources to mobilize the working class.

Instead, leaders ran a traditional, local strike that picketed only Vons/Safeway and Albertson’s. Even an announced national boycott of Safeway was not implemented beyond Southern California until three months into the strike.

Another crippling weakness was UFCW’s top-down bureaucracy. The negotiating team had no rank-and-file participation. And most locals did not hold regular membership meetings to keep morale up and information flowing.

A democratically run, joint union/community coalition to coordinate strike support could have mobilized people more and kept the fight on track. The county labor federation did a good job of organizing mass rallies, a strike fund, and a food bank. But it deferred to UFCW leaders, rather than trying to persuade them to switch to more militant tactics.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO President Sweeney flew into town two months into the strike, promised help, and promptly disappeared. When pickets were organized in other cities, it was too little, too late.

Labor’s masochistic relationship with the Democrats also yielded nothing. No pressure was put on the party to sanction employers for their illegal lockout of 35,000 UFCW members. Yet the county labor federation pulled Local 770 picketers during the strike’s last week to campaign for political candidates.

The unions can win. In what turned out to be the grocery strike’s final weeks, Nellie Wong, a Freedom Socialist Party organizer and union delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, introduced a resolution in the council calling for a one-day solidarity strike on the West Coast. (Visit www.socialism.com for a copy.) It also called on the AFL-CIO to help build such an action by redirecting million earmarked to support Democratic candidates.

SFLC delegates passed the resolution unanimously. It was also adopted by locals in Seattle and Los Angeles, and greeted with enthusiasm by grocery workers.

The solidarity strike is an important weapon at a time when the bosses are absolutely determined to force a new era of concessions from labor, especially in the area of healthcare. Labor has to recognize that the bosses have declared war. It is not business as usual.

The important thing now is for unionists facing their own contract battles to take heart from the determined clerks, checkers, and stockers who held out for five months against all the bosses threw at them. The grocery strike didn’t have to end this way, and this isn’t the end of the story. If rank-and-filers organize now to make their voices the decisive ones in the coming fights, it will be a whole new ball game. And it’s about damn time.

Muffy Sunde, a veteran activist in the Communications Workers of America, may be reached at LAFSPRW6@aol.com.

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