The Spark

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

Dangers AND opportunities in the southern California supermarket strike

Jan 5, 2004

On December 22, Teamster officials ordered the end of a walk-out by 8,000 Teamster drivers and warehouse workers. The Teamsters had walked out on November 24 in support of the strike by 70,000 workers in southern California who are in the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers.) The Teamsters could read the writing on the wall then. They knew that when their present contract with the supermarkets expires in two years, the supermarkets will demand the same kind of brutal takeaways in health care coverage and pay and benefits for new hires, as they are now demanding of the UFCW workers.

When the Teamsters walked out, UFCW officials claimed it would bring the supermarket companies to their knees, that the Teamster walkout was their “silver bullet.”

Certainly, while it lasted, the Teamster walkout had to have cost the supermarkets a great deal more money, since they had to pay still more to hire scabs and to deal with the added disruptions to their already limited operations. But union officials had already announced ahead of time that the Teamsters would not remain out for an extended time, that they would bring the drivers and warehouse workers back when the fund that paid for their health care was impacted. So the supermarket companies waited the Teamsters out.

As though that wasn’t a big enough blow to the strikers, UFCW officials at the same time drastically slashed their strike benefits. In general, the benefit cut was between one-half to two-thirds of what strikers had been receiving – which already was much less than their weekly wage. Union officials also reported that the health fund for union supermarket workers was expected to soon run out of money – jeopardizing the vital medical coverage to the grocery workers and their dependents. So strikers, who had been out since October 11 and were already under tremendous financial pressure, were faced with much bigger problems.

What did UFCW officials say about all this? They advised the strikers to get other jobs. That in itself is difficult enough, since few companies are hiring, and fewer still hire someone on strike. But even more important, as more strikers do find work elsewhere, the number of people mobilized to fight the stores will dwindle, weakening the strike.

In other words, with the strike entering its fourth month, union officials were proposing to weaken the strike.

This is despite the fact that the strike has made a real mark up until now. Shoppers have been, to a great degree, staying away from the stores, either out of solidarity, or simply because they want to avoid the unpleasant experience of facing angry picketers, often people whom they know. As of the middle of December, sales at the big supermarkets in southern California were said to be down by almost one billion dollars since the strike began.

But, obviously, keeping shoppers out of the stores, and to a certain degree disrupting the on-going operations of the supermarkets, has not been enough for the workers to win. First of all, the three big companies that own the supermarkets involved in the strike – Safeway, Albertson’s and Kroger’s, which owns Ralph’s – are three of the biggest food retailers in the country. They have enormous resources that favor them in any war of attrition with only one section of their work force.

Moreover, they have also been strongly supported by Wall Street and the big financial companies. Wall Street’s analysts are quite candid about this. In a recent report to investors, Mia Kirchgaessner, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., wrote that enduring the strike by the UFCW is “one of the best investments food retailers could make,” one that “is likely to continue to pay off over a number of years.”

Obviously, if the supermarkets are able to successfully impose the major concessions they are seeking in southern California, not only can they try to use that as the new pattern for contracts all through the country. But other capitalists will also take advantage of these concessions, trying to make them the pattern for workers in other sectors as well.

By grinding out a long, painful strike against the southern California supermarket workers, the capitalists hope to discourage other workers from opposing one more new wave of devastating concessions.

Of course, this should give the supermarket workers a powerful argument for other workers – calling on them not only to support the strike by not shopping at the Vons, Albertson’s or Ralph’s supermarkets – but to join the fight, and make it their own. The supermarket workers could push to make their own strike the beginning point of a much bigger mobilization of the thousands and millions of workers who are facing the same kinds of attacks.

It is this kind of wide mobilization that the UFCW and the other union apparatuses have always refused even to consider. But it is the only thing that could really force the bosses to back down.

Workers could be open to this kind of fight – that can be seen by how many, just as individuals, have gone down to the picket lines, regularly joined them, brought the strikers food and support – without any organization, but just on their own initiative.

But a lot of work has to be done to turn this strike around. And, as recent events show, that work won’t be done by the union heads. If it is going to be done at all, it will have to be done by the workers themselves.