California Grocery Strike


Some Observations from the Picket Line

by Kathleen O’Nan


LOS ANGELES, Jan. 11, 2004—The strikers at my local Vons in Echo Park (and the locked-out workers who’ve been picketing there ever since the lines were taken down at Ralphs) are definitely out there every day in nearly the same numbers as from the beginning of the strike. Some have gotten jobs as time has gone on, but most still loyally come to the picket line before or after work or on days off, at least for a while.

Morale is good. Not exuberant, but good. There is increased worry about what things will be like down the road as the strike goes on and on and on (week number 14 began today), but most are optimistic and display a militant attitude. Their persistence and good cheer, despite what they generally perceive as the weakness of the leadership of the UFCW, is astonishing. (I’ve personally heard very little talk about betrayal and when asked about that, most strikers either disagree or hedge on the question.)

The strikers have high hopes that the two demonstrations planned by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) over the upcoming Martin Luther King weekend will bring the companies back to the bargaining table with an offer that the membership can accept.

The biggest fear the strikers express is about the cancellation of their health coverage, especially for those with dependent children. They express confusion about the union not finding a way to cover them, since the strike is about maintaining medical insurance. They do not know precisely how the union could afford to do this, but feel there must be a way it could, if there were the will to do so. Of course, they are right on that count, especially if the AFL-CIO helped.

Anger

Most of their anger is directed at the supermarket companies, with some left over about the UFCW’s decision to take down the lines at Ralphs. They understand that this weakened the strike and do not understand why it was done or why the workers, especially the Ralphs workers, had no say in the decision.

My local Ralphs store, where I used to shop regularly, now seems to be operating with a “normal” number of shoppers, albeit with still reduced operating hours. This took many weeks for Ralphs to achieve, as the return of shoppers, at least to this particular Ralphs, was gradual. Many customers did not want to buy from a store which has locked out its workers. My sense is that those who have returned feel something like “If the union won't publicize the lockout, it’s pointless for me to individually (and invisibly) protest.”

From what little I’ve seen in other neighborhoods, and from what has been reported to me, most Ralphs stores seem to have regained their shopper base more quickly than in this Silverlake store.

I continue to go on the picket line most days for an hour or two and an increasing number of people from the neighborhood join in. More and more folks seem to know that, as supporters of this strike, saving the health care of these workers may save our own later.

In general, the workers are very much aware that they are “fighting for everyone,” not just themselves, but their kids, their relatives, other workers in situations like theirs. They know that this is the wave of the future. If they lose their health care benefits, many others will too. They sometimes compare this strike to the PATCO strike in the 1980s.

Strike Support from the Neighborhood

Some supporters bring toys and books for the children of the strikers who are there for long stretches of time; paying for child care is no longer an option for the parents. One neighborhood person said he will start coming a couple times a week with a portable television when Sesame Street is on. Several of us have brought coloring books and crayons and other treats. There are two mechanical toys for children to ride on outside the store for a quarter a ride, and supporters often put their change in them for the younger children. (None of the money goes to Vons, by the way; the strikers checked into that.)

Labor Party Ideas

After getting to know people on the line, I’ve brought the Labor Party Press to some individuals. The crisis in higher education is much talked about (especially since our newly elected Governor Schwarzenegger has made sweeping budget cut proposals that will seriously impact all working class students). The proposed solutions by the Labor Party are well received. There is total agreement about universal health care, of course. I’ve begun talking to some strikers about joining the Labor Party and expect a few will sign up soon.

Solidarity Among Strikers

The concern the strikers express for each other and the personal help they give each other in many different ways is very moving. The friendship and acts of kindness that can develop between people on strike, who have previously known each other only in the work setting, is uplifting and a pleasure to see.