Is it possible that the quote above is from the lips of a compassionate grocery store manager? In the mounting dispute between the grocery chains and the 8 Bay Area Locals representing their workers is it possible that some executives want to introduce cuts slowly out of concern for workers and our families?
No, the above statement comes from Ron Lind, UFCW spokesperson. And he is not talking about taking a scalpel rather than a chainsaw to the grocery chains profits in order to increase benefits and wages for working people. He is referring to his Union's proposal to slash his members' benefits in order to address the employers' concerns; in order to save the boss money. The boss is not impressed and wants more.
The employers are not afraid of a strike. They have emerged victorious from a 5- month dispute in Southern California. The stores in the south were fairly empty but these huge national chains were able to weather the storm. Union strategists like brother Lind of the UFCW and influential officials in the labor movement as a whole refused to extend the strike to Northern California and the entire country. Shutting the chains down from coast to coast would have brought different results rather than two tier systems, slashed benefits and lost homes. Relying on consumer boycotts and waging a regional struggle against national chains proved to be a disaster.
Yet the strategy doesn't change. The UFCW's main strategy is to get consumers to sign pledge cards promising not to shop the stores in the event of an action. Unions organize workers not consumers. Over the last 25 years boycotts have proved ineffective against the increased aggression of the employers and should only be used as a secondary tactic to shutting employers down. And why should union members be inspired and want to get involved around a program of concessions? Workers built unions and support them financially because they are supposed to improve our material well-being. Many union members question why they should pay dues in order for their leaders to draw up proposals centered on defending the employers' interests as opposed to theirs.
At a UFCW rally in Oakland California a week ago, a flier was distributed by BASSO (Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization) that called for such a change in course, that made many of the arguments in this commentary. Many rank and file people and some officials from UFCW locals said they agreed. "The attacks never stop, they just increase", said one official from a bay area local. Yet not one person publicly opposed the already failed strategy put from the podium by top officials including brother Lind. Not one person openly challenged the boycott or expressed their disagreement with the concessionary approach of the Union. As usual, no one said a word. A young rank and filer attending the rally looking for something different would not have known anyone there had a disagreement with the likes of Ron Lind.
Lawrence Johnston, Albertsons CEO, spoke of the Southern California strike recently in Business Week. He said, "[The strike] was very costly, but [the settlement] was one of the best investments our company ever made," * Johnston is happy with the savaging of workers' living standards. It is clear that the employers intend to take back all the gains we have made over 150 years. Wages, conditions, social legislation like social security. Yet our union officials still offer more. But silent disagreement is not enough. Union members, leaders at the local level, and any other "secret" dissenter within the labor movement becomes complicit in the process if they refuse to openly campaign and organize against the disastrous policies of the top Union leadership.
Excuses like the International taking a Local in to trusteeship, or perhaps losing a Union position, are no excuse at all. The average dues payer is sacrificing, and losing much more including any faith in the Union being able to help them. Silent dissenters in the labor movement should, like Lawrence Johnston, embark on one of the best investments they will ever make. They should make a public pledge to their members they that will no longer support and be silent about the Union giving up their members wages, rights and benefits without a real struggle. They should pledge that they will publicly campaign for the Union to go on the offensive, that the Union should fight for gains and not cuts and that they will organize resistance to Union officials policies that advocate otherwise and build links with others that agree with this.
This will bring the greatest reward of all; members will begin to see that the Union is not just an organization that takes their hard earned money in order to negotiate the elimination of their benefits by officials whose wages are three or four times theirs. In short, they will want to become involved in their Union.
* Business Week Jan 4th 2005