Oct 20, 2003
On October 11, workers of the three largest supermarket chains in southern and central California went on strike. The walkout involves 859 stores, with more than 70,000 workers organized in seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). An additional 8,000 warehouse workers and drivers, represented by the Teamsters union, are honoring the picket lines.
The strike vote was overwhelming: 85% of the workers voted, and 97% of them said "NO" to the companies' offer, which was nothing but a long list of take-aways. For example, the companies want workers to pay half of their health insurance premiums, plus co-payments and deductibles. Seventy-five% of these workers work part-time, on an "as-needed" basis. On average, they make $12 a week. If the companies won this demand, most workers would lose health care coverage for themselves and their children.
The companies also want to freeze wages, eliminate premiums for Sundays and night shifts, reduce pension benefits, start a two-tier wage scale with lower pay and benefits for new hires, introduce split shifts and have the right to open non-union stores.
By any measure, this is a massive attack on the workers' living standard. It is the same kind of attack that workers are facing these days in every industry – airlines, steel, auto, state governments, to name a few.
The companies try to justify their attack by pointing to competition from Wal-Mart and other discount chains. This is a lame excuse, to put it mildly. Wal-Mart doesn't sell groceries in California. Even with the 40 "superstores" Wal-Mart said it would open in California within the next five years, it would control no more than one% of the grocery sales in the state.
But beyond this simple math, why should workers pay for the companies' possible loss of market share anyway? The companies owning the supermarkets on strike – Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway – are the three largest in the country. In the first half of 2003, Kroger made 542 million dollars of profit. The profits of Albertsons and Safeway in the same period were 334 million and 324 million, respectively. The three have increased their profits by 91% over the past five years. These giant companies surely have every means to compete with Wal-Mart and other retailers! And if they don't, let them cut profits.
The first week of the strike was marked by militant, enthusiastic picket lines. Many workers had begun to wear "No Concessions!" buttons even before the strike started. The strike has also been enjoying widespread support from other workers, and the community in general. Many customers not only honored the picket lines but brought snacks and water for the picketers.
Undoubtedly, the strikers are facing a formidable fight in the weeks to come. As the strike continues, they will come under increasing pressure to accept some of the companies' demands. Union officials have already been quoted in the press saying that they are willing to make a compromise. But it's not a compromise when the only question on the table is how much workers ought to give up. Once workers accept one concession, the companies will come back for more in the future. As one striker put it,"They are going to keep pushing us and pushing us until we don't have anything."
It will take a determined fight for the working class to turn back the tide of concessions sweeping every industry in this country. But that determined fight has to start somewhere. And today the supermarket workers of southern and central California – are fighting.