The Spark

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

Southern California supermarket strike:
A missed opportunity

Mar 1, 2004

On February 26, the companies and the union involved in the Southern California supermarket strike reached an agreement. The result of the ratification vote was not known at the time this article was written. If the 59,000 strikers vote to end the strike, it will certainly be because of the financial hardship these workers have had to endure, and not because they are happy with the terms of the settlement.

The companies – Kroger, which owns Ralphs; Safeway, which owns Vons; and Albertsons – imposed one of their most important goals, a two-tier wage scale. Newly-hired clerks and cashiers will begin at $8.90 an hour, down from $9.80 in the old contract. Their top pay will also be reduced, from $17.90 to $15.10 an hour. In addition, new hires will have to pay, on average, $450 a year for health insurance and will have a worse pension plan than current workers have.

As for current workers, they will not get a raise for the next three years – only two lump-sum payments instead.

In return for these concessions, the companies agreed to keep the current workers' health care benefits at the present level for the next two years.

Even this, however, is not the "gain" that the union, UFCW, makes it out to be. While not all the details of the agreement have been revealed yet, it seems that it includes a cap on the companies' contributions to the health care fund. In other words, the issue of premiums will soon be raised for current workers as well as for new hires.

A picketer summed up the outcome of the strike as: "We get squeezed, the big shots make more money and Wall Street likes it."

The big shame is that this strike actually stood a good chance of succeeding. There was certainly no lack of enthusiasm and dedication on the part of the strikers, at least in the beginning of the strike. And despite its length, the strike enjoyed the support of other workers throughout the area. Only days before the settlement, a Los Angeles Times poll found that, among people who shopped at the three chains before the strike, 60% had never crossed the picket lines. These people certainly were not "intimidated" by picketers, as the companies claimed – they were expressing their support for the strike.

This sentiment of solidarity might have been tapped to strengthen and extend the fight, to carry it out into the streets of Los Angeles, to make the fight a broader fight of all workers whose health care is endangered. But no real attempt was made to organize the strike in such a way that other workers could actively participate in it.

In fact, even the strikers themselves were not really mobilized by the union. Strike activities were limited almost entirely to picketing. Over time, the strikers' energy and enthusiasm wore down and this reinforced the sense that it was "a David versus Goliath thing," as a striker put it. The same striker added: "It was local workers versus national companies. They could have stayed out all year. We couldn't."

It didn't have to be like that. Of course the companies had all the means to outlast the workers in this waiting game. But who said it had to be a waiting game? Who said the fight had to be fought on this basis alone, that is, exactly the way the companies wanted to fight it?

Despite all this, however, the fact that the workers put up a fight, the fact that they took a stand and gained the solidarity and respect of the community, has meant that the companies were not able to impose all of their demands on the workers – at least not fully and immediately.

That's important in view of future fights, which are certain to come in many sectors of the economy. For the big corporations and Wall Street will not stop pushing for ever more take-aways and cuts in a drive to increase their profits even more. And the workers will have to put up a fight to defend themselves against these attacks.