Angry Teamsters Strike Safeway Stooge

by Charles Walker

Against tough odds, 1,600 Teamster warehouse workers and truckers at the nation’s largest grocery distribution center, located in Tracy, California, struck back October 18 against sweatshop conditions and piece work.

One striker said, “We’d rather lose our jobs than continue to work under these conditions. My back is hurting so bad that I’m having trouble meeting my production standards.” One union official told this writer that sweatshop production standards and injuries have resulted in an annual 20–25 percent turnover.

The truckers have a separate beef. They’re under a piece-work, pay-by-the-load system. Get stuck in the Bay Area’s notoriously choked traffic or have to wait for another truck to unload, and the drivers lose pay. Moreover, the bosses play favorites, assigning the older trucks and the more congested routes to the “hardasses” (i.e., workers who stand up for their rights).

Formally the strike is against Summit Logistics, a third-party Safeway warehouse management scheme that allows Safeway to legally bar the strikers from extending their primary picket lines to Safeway’s 245 retail stores in three states, thus sapping the strikers’ power.

That means that Teamster retail drivers who deliver bread, milk, soft drinks, chips and the like are contractually obligated to cross the strikers’ informational picket lines and thus weaken the strike—or risk their jobs. Some 20,000 unionized retail clerks in Northern California face the same jeopardy, if they refuse to work.

Safeway claims that it’s an innocent victim of the strikers’ wrath. But it’s obvious that Summit is doing Safeway’s dirty work. “Costs of the strike are being shared between Summit and Safeway, although neither company would say how much it is paying for expenses such as hiring and housing the replacement workers [i.e., scabs]” (San Francisco Chronicle, October 20). Just days before the strike, the management company implemented a contract the workers had rejected by 1,146 to 142.

That rejection took guts because for weeks Summit had been saying that it had 1,650 replacement workers (scabs), including 250 drivers standing by. The day the strike began, the press reported that before all the strikers had left the warehouse, the bosses trucked in van loads of scabs who had been holed up in a nearby warehouse. The press reported that scuffles broke out, and seven people (all scabs) were injured.

The strikers should not be surprised when the company obtains a court injunction limiting the strikers at the plant’s gates to an ineffectual handful, arguing that the strikers are violent and “out of control.” The management company (Summit), a subsidiary of the British logistics firm, Tibbett and Britten Group, Plc, has expanded in recent years, providing the same anti-union services to other U.S. grocery firms.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the strikers cannot count on the regional or international Teamster officialdom to fight hard alongside the workers. For example, for 15 months, nearly 800 strikers at Basic Vegetable in nearby King City have been forced to stand by as scabs do their jobs, and as the company continues to count its profits. Teamster Joint Council 7 President Chuck Mack has failed to mobilize the area’s 50,000 members against the company’s strike-breaking.

Nor should the strikers expect Mack, who is also an international vice president (Mack holds down multiple jobs, paying him multiple salaries and pensions) to use his influence with James P. Hoffa, the union’s current president. Recently, Philadelphia warehouse workers asked Junior Hoffa to back them up, after the Acme company moved its distribution center 50 miles out of town, where another Teamster local union gave Acme a cheaper contract. Hoffa turned the Philadelphia workers down, despite support for the workers by their own local union and the Philadelphia joint council. So 600 Philadelphia Teamsters lost their jobs, and Acme stands to increase its profits by $22 million a year — and all without a fight.

The fight by the Tracy Teamsters should be viewed as a fight of all Teamsters and all workers, organized or not.

Bay Area workers in the past have given Safeway strikers, both Teamsters and retail clerks, enormous support. In 1995, consumers rallied behind the retail clerks in a 9-day strike, turning many Safeway stores into silent, virtually shopper-free bunkers. The striking union says that it’s relying on consumers to tip the balance in the strikers’ favor. Hopefully, workers and consumers will once again turn the tables on Safeway, and the strikers will prevail.