The Spark

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

AFL-CIO steps in to the California supermarket strike
– but nothing has changed

Feb 2, 2004

In the middle of January, the AFL-CIO announced it was taking control of the national strategy for the California supermarket strike and lockout. Richard Trumka, the secretary-treasurer of the national labor federation, and Ron Judd, one of its organizers, will handle negotiations and coordinate picketing and worker protests.

Since the strike began on October 11, it was clear that the three nationwide chains – Safeway (which owns Vons), Kroger (which owns Ralphs) and Albertsons – intended to impose enormous takeaways, including major cuts in health and pension benefits. They also demanded a permanent two-tier system, which would relegate all new employees to substantially lower pay and almost no benefits.

In the face of these demands, the officials of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) have carried out a policy of retreat and limiting the strike. This was clear from the very first day, when union officials pulled a "surprise" move, calling the workers at only one of the companies, Vons, out on strike. Responding to this "surprise," Ralphs and Albertsons locked out the rest of the union workers anyway. All of them stayed open, using managers, workers from other stores in the chain and newly hired workers and scabs.

One month later, the UFCW pulled the pickets from Ralphs. The UFCW justified this retreat by saying they were playing the chains off against each other. But this had no meaning since the three chains had made it clear that they had a revenue-sharing deal among themselves.

Even the effort by the unions to spread the strike to the 8,000 Teamster drivers and warehousemen who also work for the supermarkets was limited to less than a month. The Teamsters went back to work just before Christmas without the supermarkets ceding a thing.

Behind the scenes, UFCW officials had made it clear they were ready to give in to many of the companies' demands. In mid-December, the UFCW offered what union officials described as substantial concessions on health-care benefits. The companies dismissed the proposal as "inadequate." In early January, national and local UFCW officials met secretly in San Francisco with mid-level managers from the supermarket chains. After four days of meetings, union officials went further and offered to give back over 350 million dollars in concessions. To their consternation, the managers told union officials that company concession demands were not negotiable, that it was a take-it-or-leave-it offer. And – to rub it in – the companies even increased the amount of concessions they were demanding.

At that point, UFCW officials were quoted in the newspapers, saying that they "came away from that meeting scared to death." Even Richard Trumka, who is now heading the union efforts to win a settlement, admitted that the AFL-CIO was taken aback by the intractable and ruthless corporate attacks: "The movement's probably a little behind the curve on that."

"Behind the curve"? Where has Trumka been during the last few decades? Hasn't he noticed the string of concession demands coming from companies all over the country? Union officials may have been "behind the curve," but the 70,000 supermarket workers knew what was going on. They have already faced four months out on the line, with health benefits cut completely and their meager strike benefits slashed back by the union as well.

The UFCW has already faced many similar types of attacks and grueling and difficult strikes. Back in the 1980s, for example, the biggest companies in the meatpacking industry, including IBP and Hormel, demanded enormous concessions from meatpacking workers, who were represented by the very same union, the UFCW. The UFCW officials responded to those attacks with the same retreats and efforts to limit the workers that they are using now – ending in several crushing and demoralizing defeats. Moreover, in the case of Hormel, when Local P-9 in Austin Minnesota tried to organize a bigger fight to counter the attacks, the UFCW international leadership demonstrated its good will – to the company – by putting the local into receivership, and joining with the company to attack the striking meatpackers.

The fact that the AFL-CIO is now sending one of its top officials to negotiate a new contract does not appear to represent a change in course for the union bureaucracy. The AFL-CIO is organizing fund raising to try to partially replenish the UFCW strike funds. And, the AFL-CIO also promises to organize more protests, such as outside the homes of some supermarket executives. But that is not what will turn around the fortunes of the strike.

To do that would take a massive mobilization of workers in the region. Of course, this would have to start with the supermarket workers themselves, who the bureaucrats have limited to mainly picketing at the 850 stores. The workers would have to bring their forces together in much more massive and regular demonstrations, protests that really put their determination and fighting spirit in front of not only other businesses and government officials but also other workers. This could be the starting point for the supermarket workers to appeal to other workers to join their fight, that is, to make the supermarket strike the fight of other workers. The other workers already recognize the need for this, since as everyone says, if the supermarket workers are forced to give in, all the other bosses will line up and demand the same thing– or worse.

So far, this has been exactly the kind of fight that the union officials at the head of the AFL-CIO and UFCW have refused to organize or even consider. But the workers who are under attack can go in this direction anyway.