The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Southern California Grocery Workers Under Attack

Jul 22, 2019

Forty-six thousand grocery workers in Southern California are facing a big attack. Union officials have revealed that four of the biggest supermarket chains in the region are demanding pay cuts from some of their workers, and they are offering other workers a one percent “raise” – which of course is a pay cut because of inflation.

The wages that the four chains – Albertsons, Vons, Pavillions and Ralphs – are paying now are very low already. Meat cutters, for example, start at 13.34 dollars an hour. In other classifications, workers start with wages barely above 12 dollars an hour, which is the current minimum wage in California. The companies pay an experienced cashier less than 45,000 dollars a year, when the median rent in Los Angeles County is about 30,000 dollars a year. And union officials say that the companies want to reclassify the cashiers to pay them less – which would amount to as much as a 25 percent pay cut for some of the cashiers!

Not surprisingly, the negotiations between the companies and the union representing the workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, are stalled. The workers have been working without a contract since March, and voted in June to authorize a strike.

If there is a strike, it will be the second one in 16 years against the same supermarket chains – which today are owned by two huge, very profitable companies, Albertsons and Kroger.

The 2003-04 Southern California supermarket strike, which involved 70,000 workers, enjoyed plenty of support in working-class communities, where many customers joined the picket lines. But instead of trying to spread the strike, union leaders did the exact opposite. A few weeks into the strike, for example, they called off the picket lines at all but one of the companies. This certainly contributed to a stalling of the strike; and after four months the strike ended with a defeat: the companies were able to force a two-tier contract on the workers, with reduced wages and benefits for new hires.

Many grocery workers today were part of that strike; and many of them no doubt remember its bitter lessons. And that’s important, because if there is a strike, once again it may draw wide support from other workers – which may give the strikers the possibility to spread their fight to other grocery retailers, and eventually to other industries, where workers are facing the same kind of massive attacks from big and very profitable companies.