The Safeway Strike: An Assessment

by Charles Walker

When 1,600 Summit/Safeway workers walked off the job October 18, they were trying to recover conditions and pay that the bosses took from them in 1991, and in 1978. After six weeks on strike the workers voted 717 to 404 to return to work. The new contract they ratified is not as good as the contract offer they rejected before they struck, but itís not radically different. The new pact is for six years, not five. It provides for a 5% cap on medical cost increases for some years, as well as small reductions of other cost items.

More importantly, the fate of 29 workers fired during the strike is to be settled under the contractís grievance-arbitration clauses. Typically, that means that even fired workers who are returned to their jobs have to wait six months or longer.

Long Odds

The strikers faced terribly long odds. They were going up against Safeway, a corporate Goliath that controls, with three other national chain stores, nearly 45% of Americaís grocery business. Safeway has budgeted $2 billion alone for renovations and new stores for the new year. Clearly, Safeway could, if it must, sustain losses in the millions and remain a viable enterprise.

But since the lost 1978 strike, when Safeway imposed the computer-driven productivity standards on warehouse workers, and 1991, when the Teamsters regional misleadership caused the drivers to lose their hourly pay, on-the-job pressures have been building for relief. Finally last year, the members of Stockton Local 439 elected new leaders, some fresh from the warehouse. The new leaders responded to the demands of the workforce to remedy their intolerable situation, and conducted the best strike they knew how. The strike was for real. It wasnít a leadership ploy to merely allow the workers to blow off steam, a so-called dog-and-pony show.

Still, from the start the leaders and the ranks counted on beating Safeway with a consumer boycott. Halting the growing number of scab-driven trucks at the distribution center was never part of the strike strategy.

In 1978, some 4,000 chain-store Teamsters fought for 128 days against a Safeway-led coalition of supermarket chains, finally voting 1,328 to 340 to return to work. Safeway had defeated the workersí resistance to the companyís killer speedup procedures, called the Method Time Measure plan. The workersí bargaining position was weakened when top Teamster officials ordered an end to solidarity picketing at West Coast distribution centers, sending thousands of Teamsters back to work.

In 1991, the Safeway workers ratified an agreement that transferred them to a newly built distribution center, the nationís largest. The center was owned by Safeway, but Safeway hired a management firm to run the center and take over the workforce. The pact specified that outstanding differences between the union and the management firm would be resolved by arbitration. But the key Teamster negotiator, without the membersí say-so, agreed to an arbitration procedure that cost the drivers their hourly pay, and stuck them with piecework pay.

Did the Strikers Lose?

No doubt many Safeway/Summit strikers feel that they lost the just ended strike, because they failed to win relief from speedup and piecework. And certainly, many workers, unionized or not, will agree with that judgment.

But they should consider that the strikers made no major concessions to the bosses. The workersí fight was to force the company to make concessions. Thatís always one of the hardest battles to win; along with fighting to gain union recognition, or a first contract. One striker said that they didnít win what they wanted to win, but still they won the companyís respect. The strikerís wrong about that. But it is true that the strikers had to fight against long odds, and they fought well against callous bosses who fought back with professional scabs, and a bankroll that could fill a longhaul trailer or two.

Also, just as in 1978 and 1991, the strikers had to cope with the snares and devices set for them by the sharpies who make up the Teamsters top brass. For instance, some international officers led some strikers to think that a national campaign against Safeway was in the works; it just needed a little more planning. But when pickets showed up at Safewayís milk and bread plants, the picket line was not respected by the local union, which is headed by a Teamsters International Representative.

True, the 1,600 strikers didnít win. But they did fight Safeway to a draw. Thatís a big improvement over 1978 and 1991, even though thatís cold comfort to many strikers returning to their jobs.

December 5, 2000