The Spark

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

The California supermarket strike:
A bigger mobilization is needed

Dec 1, 2003

The Southern California supermarket strike has now entered its eighth week. In many of the 859 stores on strike, picket lines continue to be very visible and well-manned. Despite the hardship of a long strike with no end yet in sight, it's obvious that many strikers have kept their determination and fighting spirit.

Three days before the Thanksgiving holiday, responding to the request of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), the Teamsters union announced that the 8000 truck drivers who work for the three companies being struck would start honoring picket lines at warehouses. The Teamsters had already been refusing to cross picket lines at the stores since the beginning of the strike.

The strike continues to enjoy visible support not only from the truck drivers but from other workers – and from customers in general. People from the neighborhood around a store often visit and join picket lines, buying snacks and drinks for the picketers. The strike is definitely a topic of discussion in other workplaces and working-class neighborhoods. Workers in other industries not only sympathize with the strikers but identify with their fight. Many workers have been facing the same kind of attacks – cutbacks on wages and healthcare benefits, introduction of two-tier wage scales, loss of retirement benefits – or they fear similar attacks coming.

It's this widespread support, combined with the strikers' own militancy, that gives the strike its real possibilities in the face of a really tough attack carried out by the companies.

From the beginning, the companies – Kroeger, Safeway and Albertsons – put up a kind of united front against the strikers. When the UFCW struck the Vons and Pavillions stores owned by Safeway, the other two companies immediately locked out their workers. The companies were ready to lose business so they could gang up on the workers. Obviously, they can afford the loss: these are the three biggest supermarket chains in the country. The companies agreed between themselves to share the financial burden of the strike. They can depend on the support of financial interests on Wall Street, which in fact encouraged them to take a hardline stance against the workers to increase the companies' profitability and stock value. And the supermarkets have support from other companies who want to take medical care benefits away from their workers – the main concession demanded by the markets.

Faced with this front, the strikers need to use every weapon they can mobilize, which means the active support for and participation in this strike by other workers. So far, however, the strike has not been organized to do that. The UFCW may have called on customers not to cross picket lines, but the financial backing the chains have amassed will allow them to outwait any consumer boycott.

The UFCW has not even tried to mobilize all of its own members working in grocery stores – not even those working on different contracts for the same companies being struck. To the contrary: two weeks into the strike, the union took a step back by pulling the pickets from the Ralphs stores owned by Kroeger. Now the UFCW says it's using its "trump card" by calling on the Teamsters to honor the pickets at the warehouses – but why not do this from the beginning? Why leave the strikers out on the picket lines for six weeks without mobilizing all the forces and support available?

Despite all the interest shown by other workers, almost nothing has been done to involve them actively in this strike. Instead of engaging in a real fight like this, the UFCW filed a consumer lawsuit against the three companies for violating anti-trust laws. We know what the courts do. Even if they ruled in the workers' favor – not likely – the case won't work its way through the courts for years. This does nothing but divert workers from the fight that needs to be made.

The bosses certainly don't limit their attacks to workers at a few companies or even in one industry. It's an all-out war they are waging on the workers' living standard in order to increase their already high profits. The working class can defend itself against this kind of all-out attack only by mobilizing its forces in return. All of its forces.