The Spark

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

Southern California supermarket strike:
70,000 workers can extend and build their fight

Nov 3, 2003

The 70,000 striking workers at southern California supermarkets have demonstrated real determination, battling to keep the gargantuan supermarket chains from gobbling up their health benefits, and imposing a two-tier wage and benefit structure.

Their strike has been visible and vocal, and it has struck a real chord in the working class. Teamsters, working for the same corporate chains and who face similar contract demands next year, refused to unload their cargo at the striking stores. Many customers of the supermarkets have shown up on the picket lines, often bringing food or coffee. Family members join the picket lines. Workers from other unions picket alongside the grocery workers with their own union's signs. And there is a constant stream of cars and trucks going by, honking their horns.

This support and solidarity shows that the supermarket workers could possibly widen their fight, turning it into a social struggle for the right to a job that pays decent wages and benefits, a fight that could engage many other workers.

Instead of building on this support and sympathy to widen the fight, the heads of the union, the UFCW, have done the exact opposite. From day one of the strike, they limited its impact. They struck only one store chain, Von's, rather than all three. Only when the other two chains, Ralph's and Albertson's, locked out their workers, did the union set up picket lines at all stores. Three weeks into the strike, UFCW officials pulled the pickets from the 300 stores owned by Ralph's, even though the company said it would continue the lockout and that it would share whatever money it makes with the other two chains.

Union officials explained this move, saying they wanted to give people a way to get food. Obviously, since the three chains so dominate the supermarket business in southern California, where to shop has become a bigger problem, as the strike continued.

But the unions could have offered a different option for other working people, setting up cooperatives with local farmers and suppliers, bypassing the big stores all together. Why not? This could have involved more people with the strike and tied other working people and even small businesses to the striking workers.

Some union officials have publicly declared they are holding out a "silver bullet" in case the strike founders: they will call on the Teamsters, who now service the huge, centralized warehouses, to go out on strike and therefore paralyze the entire food distribution system.

Why wait? Why not call on the Teamsters right away? Why allow the supermarket workers to face the growing problems of how to pay their bills in a lengthening strike? In any case, the strikers themselves can ask the Teamsters to do this.

John Sweeney, the national head of the AFL-CIO, announced that he and the other union leaders held a conference call with more than 150 institutional investors and analysts on Wall Street to explain why they shouldn't support the strike. As if the Wall Street financial institutions that are the major stockholders and creditors to the supermarkets, weren't behind the attacks on the supermarket workers in the first place!

Wall Street could, of course, decide to back off – if tens and hundreds of thousands of workers clog the streets of Los Angeles, and besiege the headquarters of the big banks and other big companies. If the functioning of their money machine is disrupted, Wall Street could very well be the first to demand that the supermarkets cede to the workers.