The Safeway Strike: A Commentary

by Charles Walker

The worst thing that could come out of the strike against Safeway/Summit would be if the 1,600 strikers not only lost, but were also left with a profound sense of hopelessness, a belief that the strike was doomed from the start.

But nothing could be further from the truth. For surely, a united labor movement, or probably just the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) with only part of the labor movement, could stop Safeway in its tracks. Or maybe just the tens of thousands of Teamsters in Northern California, when mobilized, could do the trick.

Unfortunately the Safeway/Summit strikers are not likely to ever know, unless they do whatever it takes to get the unionís top brass to match the strikerís iron determination to end the speedup in the warehouse and the piece work rates on the road, the key reasons the members of Stockton Local Union 439 walked out on October 18.

An Inevitable Strike

It was clear from the first day that the strike was inevitable. After nine long years of pent-up frustration and growing anger over daily abuse it was time for the workers to have their say, and unambiguously they said, Strike the bastards! The strikers had the backing of their local union leaders, recently elected and fresh from their company jobs. No one in the Teamster hierarchy had the moral authority to talk the workers out of striking.

Of course, no isolated local union can win a war of attrition against Safeway with its deep, deep pockets. But just as individual workers gain strength by joining unions, Stockton Local 439 belongs to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, precisely in order to minimize the hazards of isolation and enjoy the benefits of collective power and solidarity.

But once on strike the workers found themselves semi-isolated, fighting with at least one arm tied behind their collective back. They were told that labor laws restricted their ability to stop scabs. They were told that they couldnít even carry signs at the boycotted stores. They were told that they must limit themselves to passing out handbills; and that they must limit themselves to persuading consumers, one at a time, not to shop at Safeway.

Despite those restrictions the strikers have had a noticeable effect on Safewayís sales, as evidenced by the laying-off of some 300 retail clerks, and the transporting of perishables in unrefrigerated pickup trucks.

Backing of the International Union Needed

But clearly, a boycott against Safeway on the scale that Local 439 can mount cannot offset the financial clout that Safeway possesses. But with the backing of their international union, the Local 439 strikers probably could level the field, despite the harsh anti-labor laws that shackle them.

Thatís chiefly because the strikers can count on the same widespread support and solidarity from other workers, organized or not, that was so powerful during the national UPS strike. That includes the same solidarity that in 1995 emptied Safewayís stores and parking lots during the nine-day retail clerks strike.

That spirit of support is alive and well today, but it needs the resources of the international union to mobilize it and bring it out into the streets where it can do the most good for the strikers.

Imagine the impact on the strikersí morale and on the communityís support, if 5,000 or 10,000 workers and their allies had marched up San Franciscoís Market Street last week, demanding that Safeway show respect for its workers, and vowed to return again if Safeway continued to play hardball with its workers.

Over the years, unions have marched and have demonstrated their power to rally other workers to their side. True, itís not done often enough, but itís a tactic well known to the higher-ups in the labor movement, as evidenced by last yearís Seattle anti-WTO labor march.

No one, especially the Safeway strikers, should think for a moment that community activists in many churches, and student activists, and social justice activists will not respond to a call by unions to take to the streets on behalf on the Safeway strikers. The communityís untapped power is just waiting to be mobilized, as it was in Seattle.

Time for Strikers to Escalate Their Power

To date, the strikersí attention has been focused on getting organized, on learning the ropes. Now it should be clear that itís time to escalate their power, to bring in all Teamsters, the larger labor movement, too, and to mobilize their grassroots support. That would not be at all difficult if the IBTís top brass brought the unionís resources of money, contacts, and staff into the fight.

At this point, itís essential that the top brass be persuaded by the strikers that their fight against Safeway requires and deserves their unstinting solidarity. However, given the record of the international union, getting that support may not be an easy thing to do. To date, the unionís record with respect to national contracts for brewery workers, flight attendants, and car haulers doesnít leave much room for optimism. That suggests that the Safeway/Summit strikers should not wait passively for the unionís higher echelons to help out.

In the past, the struck plantís workers petitioned the international union to stop the forced division of the workforce into two locals. Ron Carey, then the unionís general president, backed up the workers and foiled the plan to segregate the drivers from the inside workers. Certainly, the workers could petition once more, this time to alert the top officials of what they need, if they are to win their strike. And the strikers should consider leafleting the unionís organized Bay Area worksites, soliciting the immediate help of the unionís rank and file to bring the unionís officialdom to their side.

If the Teamster officials in Washington and their regional representatives donít heed the strikersí petition, it may then be necessary to travel to the unionís so-called marble palace and ask for a face-to-face meeting with the unionís decision makers. The strikers should make clear that what they need is more than verbal support, petty stratagems, and holiday turkeys.

In the meantime, all friends and allies of the Safeway/Summit strikers should tell their unionís officials, and that includes the officialdom of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, that the strikers urgently need militant solidarity, right now!