November 12, 2003
The California Grocery Workers Strike
The Wal-Mart Distraction
By MICHAEL SCHWARTZ
We are in the midst of the largest labor struggle since the UPS workers went on strike in 1997. In the late evening of October 11th a strike was called by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) against Vons and Pavilions (Safeway). Their "competitors", Ralphs (Kroger) and Albertsons immediately responded by locking out all of their unionized workers.
By the early morning of October 12th, 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California were walking the picket lines. These workers are fighting for their livelihood and they need our support. These three multi-billion dollar supermarket chains, who are currently crying poverty, earned over eight billion dollars in net profit in the last five years alone. That would have been impossible without the hundreds of thousands of workers who make their stores run.
The companies claim that since Wal-Mart is moving in to the supermarket business they have to cut their costs in order to compete. They are trying to divide the working class by claiming that the grocery workers are overpaid. If we are to believe the companies it seems every grocery worker is making about seventeen dollars an hour. But the vast majority of grocery workers are part-time, and the average worker is taking home about $1,300 a month. One of the main victories these workers have won over decades of struggle is a decent health care package.
However, the contract that has been offered by these multi-billion dollar chains is an insult at best. The proposed contract could cut health benefits by fifty percent, cap wages at $14.90 an hour for new employees (after six years of service!), and even attacks the health benefits of those who have already retired. One of the main goals of this contract is to institute a two-tier wage system. This would mean everyone hired under the proposed contract would be on a different wage and benefit scale than those already working there. Obviously, the company would then try to find any pretext needed to fire the older workers in order to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in added profits with their new low-wage workforce. The goal of these companies is to institute a l! ow-wage and benefits workforce similar to the one that exists at Wal-Mart.
But in the end this fight is about more than the grocery workers of Southern California, it's about the working class fighting to hold onto the gains they have won over one hundred years of struggle. This is not a simple dispute between supermarket employees and their employers. A line has definitely been drawn in the sand; all the employers are on one side and all the employees are on the other. These companies have joined together in an act of corporate solidarity. They know which side they're on in this war; the question is which side are we on?
Think about it, multi-billion dollar corporations who are supposed to be in "competition" with each other have joined together to try and crush their employees. They would rather lose tens of millions of dollars a week in the short term in the hopes of stealing hundreds of millions from their employees in the long term. This is not someone else's fight; we all have a stake in it.
If the workers win it will show the employers that they can't count on slashing wages and benefits in their never-ending demand for higher and higher profit margins. But if the employers win, this will have severe consequences for workers everywhere. Who will be next on the list? Worse yet, who will fight back if it is seen as a lost cause? Real wages have been falling in this country since 1973. In the same time period inequality has grown and corporate profits have soared. During the "booming 90s" and in the years since, we have witnessed startling productivity rates while wages have either remained ! stagnant or have fallen. Recently we found out that the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 7.2% rate for the third quarter. Yet more and more people continue to file for unemployment. We've also seen a net job loss for three straight years, the first time that's happened since the Great Depression. What does it mean that the economy is growing while jobs are being lost left and right? It shows us that employers are squeezing more and more out of the workers who still have jobs.
There comes a time when people will not take any more beatings, when they dig in their heels and refuse to give another inch. That's what we're witnessing in the grocery stores of Southern California. This fight really could be the turning point. It could be the spark that lights the fire, when workers across the country say "enough is enough". Already supermarket employees across the nation are ready to strike to keep their benefits, MTA workers in LA are on strike, teachers in Chicago a prepared to strike, even restaurant employees in two of the most exclusive restaurants in New Y! ork City are on strike to keep their health benefits.
The grocery workers are not isolated; they are 70,000 representatives of the working class who have stood up to say we're not going to take it anymore. They need to know that over a hundred million other workers are standing behind them. This isn't the first time we've seen regular working folks take the lead in fighting for basic human rights such as health care. The eight-hour workday, the elimination of child labor, unemployment insurance, and social security were victories won by organized labor and we shouldn't forget that.
There are those who say that in times of economic trouble everybody needs to give in a little. But in a country where the 400 richest individuals are worth $955 billion dollars I think what we need is a little bit more taking by those on the bottom.
What is needed now is some good old-fashioned solidarity. The grocery workers need to know they are not alone. This is not their fight, this is our fight. Let's let them know that we believe with all of hearts in that old labor slogan that an injury to one is an injury to all.
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Michael Schwartz is an activist with the Los Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization link to www.geocities.com