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Northern California Grocery Contract/Another Setback For Labor

by Richard Mellor Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005 at 11:23 PM

The tentative agreement between the grocery chains and the UFCW leadership will increase the sense of helplessness that many workers feel and strengthen their distrust of their unions

”We could have gone for a bigger wage increase, but it would have had to come out of our health-care benefits plan…….” (1)

By Richard Mellor

Retired member, AFSCME Local 444 Oakland CA

UFCW leaders in Northern California have reached a tentative agreement with the three grocery chains in the San Francisco Bay Area. The concessionary agreement is yet another setback for organized labor and working people as a whole. It will further embolden the employers who are intent on driving us back to conditions that existed prior to the great labor upsurge of the 1930’s.

The quote above from Ron Lind, a UFCW spokesperson explains in one short sentence why the union leadership is incapable of making gains for their members. Negotiations, for them, are a discussion between the employers and Union officials over a fixed pie; and the employer determines the size of that pie. The employer says, “here is what we have and you divide it up”, and Ron Lind accepts that.

In his comment to the press above, Ron Lind doesn’t mention profits. This is because the employers don’t include that in the pie and Lind, like the employer, doesn’t think profits should be included, after all, that’s the employers’ wages and we can’t touch that. This view is held by the entire leadership of the AFL-CIO and that is the reason Ron Lind attacks his members’ living standards and dresses it up as a victory. In this endeavor, the top Union leadership gets academia to back them up, to add some intellectual credibility to the idea that there is no alternative but retreat.

Harley Shaiken, a “labor specialist” at U.C. Berkeley adds credibility to the labor leadership’s false views, “This is a very good contract in a very tough context---the precedent in Southern California and the shadow of Wal-Mart.”, Shaiken tells the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s interesting that “labor experts” are invariably professors or other academics at one educational facility or another. They study labor you see; the union member isn’t smart enough to study it, we just go to work. So Shaiken, in order to cover the Union leadership’s failings, uses the present economic and political situation as the excuse for retreat; now’s not the time. How many times have we heard that? This would be a fair enough argument if it were honest. In all struggles retreat, or maintaining the status quo is sometimes necessary. But Shaiken’s argument is simply a cover for the labor leadership’s capitulation to the employers. He is no doubt well paid for his efforts.

During the nineties, in one of the longest economic expansions in history during which profits reached a 40-year high, workers’ living standards still continued to decline or remain flat. Most Americans were still worse off than we were 25 years prior. True, the 90’s expansion lifted some of us from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder but the poverty rate overall in the U.S. was still 12.7% in 1998, around 35 million people. Among African Americans the figure was 26%, and the income gap between rich and poor in this country was at its widest since the great depression with the average U.S. top executive making 419 times the average worker in 1998, up from 42 to 1 in 1980. By the end of the nineties the combined wealth of the top 1% of U.S. families was about the same as that of the entire bottom 95%. If that wasn’t the time to go on the offensive there never will be one.

But the gains made in the 90’s, particularly among some of the lower paid workers were due to the objective situation, not any efforts on the part of the labor leadership to organize a struggle to get their members more of the pie; under the best conditions, they still retreated. Millions of workers should have been organized during this period and could have been had the labor leaders gone on the offensive.

The balance of class forces today is more in working people’s favor than at any other time. We are the most numerous in society, even organized labor with only 12% or so of the working class in its ranks is potentially stronger today than ever before; transportation, auto, marine, these are all organized. The public sector is around 35% organized. It is only the failure of the labor leadership to mobilize these forces, to unite them in a concerted struggle against the employers that leads to defeat after defeat for organized labor. It has nothing to do with a bad context as Shaiken claims.

Here are some examples of the tentative agreement between UFCW leaders and the grocery bosses as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Under the present contract, a journeyman clerk presently earns .08 an hour; to reach top level takes one year. Under the new agreement new employees will be required to work, 7,800 hours starting at .00 an hour before they reach top level. It will take 3.5 years to reach top level; keep in mind the employer controls hours. According to the Union, it will take 6 years for new employees to reach top level of health-care benefits.

After the Union leaders force this divisive contract on their members, new employees will have higher co-payments for visits to doctors’ offices and for prescription drugs. There are now three levels of health care for new employees.

Also, retires will have to pay per month for health care after ratification. Under the present contract they pay nothing.

As has been the case for years in the labor movement and was the case in the recent Southern California grocery strike, the living standards of new hires are sacrificed the most. This is a good strategy from the Union official’s point of view as the new hires don’t get to vote on his or her own demise. It also causes hostility and anger among the members as people earn different wages and/or benefits while doing the same job. I’d like to know if professor Shaiken thinks that this is a “good context” in which to work. But Shaiken’s relationship is with Union officials not rank and file members, the folks who pay the dues. These conditions at work make also solidarity harder to build. Solidarity strengthens the ranks not only against the boss but also in our ability to challenge and change concessionary leaders and their concessionary policies.

Another method of protecting themselves from their members’ ire is voting by mail so that workers can’t influence each other. This also makes opposition to leadership harder to develop and prevents the union member from getting a sense of the potential we have when we are together. Keeping people apart, letting them vote in the isolated comfort of their own living rooms is more democratic, proponents argue. More people will vote. There is a name for this strategy, divide and rule, and the employers aren’t the only force that uses it.

Ron Lind the UFCW spokesperson thinks this contract is a “good deal”. Of course, Ron doesn’t have to live with it. I will bet that Lind’s disposable income hasn’t been reduced by this contract nor has professor Shaiken’s. One can almost guarantee that Richard Benson, close to retiring as President of Local 870, a large UFCW local in the Bay Area will see not cuts in his benefits, health care or pension, I also have a question for these three champions of this concessionary deal: what are your salaries?

The most damaging aspect of this situation, a situation that has gone on for many years now, is that workers more and more are drawing the conclusion that the Union isn’t worth it. I spent almost five months on picket lines with grocery workers who came up to Northern California during the last strike and many of them I have kept in touch with are totally disgusted with their Union. Here is a message from one of the picketers who I met during that 51/2-month ordeal. He is apologizing to the new hires:

“I apologize, I’m so sorry for what this contract gave us. I didn’t vote for it. I didn’t like it. I’ve said my piece. But, uh, I guess a lot of people were broken down or whatever.

I feel that the company won. I feel that the union didn’t fight hard enough. But I definitely voiced my opinion at the meeting. So I guess I got to go with the flow.

But I apologize for anybody else who is going to have their contract coming up. Thank you for the coffee. Thank you for the encouragement. And thank you for being on my side.”

Whenever the barrage of propaganda about how worthless American workers are begins to affect me a little I think of this brother.

The whole strategy of the labor leadership from the AFL-CIO down is to convince the union member that we can’t win a strike. This lesson is learned through heroic sacrifice on the part of the dues paying member. As they have orchestrated one backward step after another, one defeat after another, the issue of importance for the labor leaders remains fairly intact; keep the dues money coming in. They see the unions as a business and any good businessperson has to aim for black ink. After all, some union officials earn 0,000 a year and up, where do you think that comes from?

There are no doubt many union activists and officials at the lower levels of the trade union movement who will hold their breath and try to make the Lind/Shaiken argument to their members. The members, seeing no alternative will reluctantly accept the loss but won’t buy the argument, instead moving further and further in to inactivity and disgust at the organization they believed should fight for them and their families.

Those brothers and sisters within our movement who object in their hearts to the present strategy cannot remain silent any longer. There is a mood out there for change. Working peoples see the billions of dollars wasted in our society, the massive salaries paid to CEO’s and profits of corporations; the money is there. Heroic characters, not the Mafia as big business controlled Hollywood implies, built unions. Millions of workers, men and women whose names we will never know fought employers, troops and gun thugs in order to create a better life for us. Most of them benefited little for their efforts; the fruits of their victories are ours. They were giants compared to the professional officials and “labor experts” who abandon the future generations in order to maintain labor peace and the comfortable lifestyle that many of them have. Unionism is not about dues money; it is about removing us from the competition of the marketplace and improving the lives of working people. We owe it to those who preceded us to keep that tradition alive.

For those within our movement who do not agree with the collaborationist policies of the Union but remain silent. Without action, without being willing to face some flak and initial condemnation from the Union hierarchy, they will find that there will be no members left to extract concessions from.

(1) Ron Lind, UFCW spokesperson, SF Chronicle 1-25-04

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The rank and file need to wildcat strike and install new leaders Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005 at 5:16 PM
All unions should be disbanded... laksdf Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005 at 8:55 PM

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