Three Reports on Southern California Grocery Workers Strike—“Holding the Line for Health Care” Nationally

Report 1: “This Is What Solidarity Looks Like”

LA Docks Shut Down for Grocery Strike Rally

by Sarah Knopp and Dana Blanchard

[A significant solidarity action with striking grocery store workers in southern California was carried out in November by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), but that action has remained a well-kept secret.

[ A railroad worker recently forwarded the following report to us with the question: “Did anyone see this story on the evening news, on CNN, or in the daily papers? Maybe ‘Good Morning America’ covered it and I missed it.” In view of the action’s significance, we are posting this report, for the information of our readers. One of the few such reports that we have seen, it is from Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization. It was originally posted November 14 on their web site.

[This is followed by another report stating that the southern California grocery strike could be critical for all of U.S. labor. But that report is not from the U.S. media; it appeared in a British weekly.]

THOUSANDS OF dockworkers shut down ports in Los Angeles November 10 to hold a solidarity rally with striking grocery workers. “This is what solidarity looks like,” a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13 told Socialist Worker. “We should be doing this all the time.”

The ILWU used a clause in its contract to hold a “stop-work” meeting to close the port in San Pedro for the evening in support of some 70,000 grocery workers on strike or locked out in Southern California since October 12. The shipping line bosses and stevedoring companies were fuming—but ILWU members shut down the port anyway.

The mood was electric at what was the biggest labor rally in the area in years. As some 3,000 ILWU members joined the picket at a nearby Albertsons, hundreds of striking members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 arrived.

Next came a big delegation from Teamsters Local 560, along with their union’s semi truck, which served as a rally stage. Dozens of members of unions representing teachers, health care workers, and government employees were there, along with activists from U.S. Labor Against the War.

The picket line was five abreast—and completely shut down the store for more than an hour. So many people were trying to join the picket lines that traffic was tied up throughout San Pedro. Chants and cheers could be heard blocks away.

For the UFCW members, the rally was a tremendous boost. “Corporate greed has got to stop,” ILWU Local 13 President Joe Donato told the crowd. “Our stop-work meeting is here tonight to support the UFCW. There is nothing moving on the waterfront tonight.”

The strikers are fighting the three biggest grocery chains in the U.S.—Kroger, which operates Ralphs in California; Albertsons; and Safeway, which owns Vons and Pavilions. The companies are trying to force workers to pay health insurance premiums for the first time while limiting the employers’ own payments into the health plan.

This would raise workers’ health care costs to as much as $95 a week—far too expensive for low-paid grocery workers. The harshness of the employers’ demands—and the widespread outrage over health care costs—has led to widespread support for the grocery strikers.

“An injury to one is an injury to all,” said one ILWU member when asked why his union took action to support the strikers. “Everyone needs to do this,” another dockworker said. “This needs to be the culture of unions in this city.”

The picketers marched down the block for a spirited rally of 6,000 that featured local UFCW and ILWU leaders, as well as officials from the United Teachers Los Angeles and Service Employees International Union, and several Democratic Party politicians. Chairing the rally was Miguel Contreras, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which has played a central role in organizing support for the strikers.

Maryanne, a locked-out UFCW worker at Albertsons, told the crowd, “Whether you make $350 a week or $500 a week, we are going to fight for rights for everybody.” The solidarity on the docks can be the model for how to take the grocery workers’ struggle forward.

The UFCW has withdrawn pickets of Teamsters-organized grocery warehouses and has pulled picket lines from Ralphs in what the union said was a bid to maintain public support. The result of these moves, however, was to weaken the fight.

But the ILWU stop-work rally showed exactly how to build support for workers—through action. This demonstration showed that we have the power to organize the kind of labor solidarity that can force the employers to back down.

Report 2: A Critical Strike in American Labor History

[The following report is from the Nov. 29, 2003, issue of the British newspaper The Guardian (London); we reproduce major excerpts, edited for Labor Standard, for the information of our readers.]

Benefits Battle Could Be One of Most Critical Strikes in American Labor History

by Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles

Normally, during Thanksgiving week, Vons supermarket in Santa Monica would be packed with shoppers waiting in long lines at the checkout counters. This week, however, the only lines are the picket lines outside the store as one of the largest and what is described as one of the most critical strikes in modern American labor history enters its eighth week.

More than 70,000 workers at 859 locations across central and southern California have been on strike in protest against plans by supermarket chains to cut their health and pension benefits. This week, the strike, called by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, intensified as Teamsters union drivers refused to cross picket lines at depots. The strike’s most significant backers, however, are the shoppers who are also refusing to cross picket lines, reducing turnover in some stores to a third of the normal volume.

The stakes are high. Victory for the strikers would accelerate attempts to unionize other big service companies, say union organizers; defeat could have a chilling effect on recruitment. Union leaders say the strike could be the first round in a fight in which major companies seek to reduce traditional benefits because they claim they are being undercut by vast non-union firms, such as Wal-Mart.

The strike started after talks broke down over the employers’ intention to cut health and pension benefits by stopping paying their employees’ insurance premium. First the staff at Vons and Pavilions, two chains owned by Safeway Inc, walked out. The following day, two other chains, Ralphs and Albertsons, which are owned by Kroger, which bargains jointly with Safeway, locked out their staff.

The strike is different from the traditional disputes because many shoppers have personal relationships with checkout staff, who they often know by name. As a result, backing has been heavy, with the sound of honking car horns, as drivers signal their support, now part of the rhythm of life around striking stores. As a result, the companies are losing $40m (£23m) a week in sales to rival stores.

“Support has been very strong,” said Ralph Venegas, 50, who has been with Vons for 14 years and was standing outside the store’s main entrance. A customer had just dropped off a large Thanksgiving pie for the picketers, others had come by with tacos and sandwiches.

“A lot of unions are starting to realize that this is much bigger than just a retail clerks’ strike. If we go down, others will go down.”

Linda, who has been working for Vons for 17 years and preferred to give only her first name, said most members of the public supported the strike. “A few are rude and say ‘It’s a free country, I’ll shop where I like’, but most support us.” She said people knew the supermarkets were highly profitable. “After Enron, that term ‘corporate greed’ came up and people understand that.”

Ellen Andreder, the UFCW spokeswoman in southern California, said other unions were watching closely and support was coming from unions across the U.S.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 19 years,” Ms Andreder said. “This is probably the biggest strike—in terms of numbers and locations—in the history of the labor movement. The Teamsters and other unions see a direct link: no industry would be immune [from cuts in benefits] if they get away with it here.

“Our feeling is that we have come too far as a society to lower the bar and go back to the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller when the more you exploited your workers, the more successful you were.” Ms Andreder said the companies had enjoyed a 91% increase in profits in the past five years and could well afford to continue paying benefits. Safeway has an annual turnover of $30 billion.

“This strike should send a message,” said Greg Denier, the UFCW communications director. “Healthcare is a major issue now and people understand and are sympathetic.” He said the dispute would have a major effect on the union movement: “This experience will shape a whole new generation of trade unionists. We’re getting more and more members and support from other unions.

“But the most important support we have had is from the grocery shopper, and the fact that they have not been crossing picket lines is a sign of our success.”

The local Teamsters president, Jim Santangelo, declared on announcing that the drivers would respect picket lines at depots: “We either end this thing together or we die together.”

The companies have started to place whole-page advertisements in the newspapers headlined “Read Between the Picket Lines” and subheaded “We care about our employees, too.” The ad concludes: “We’re united in our goal of reaching a contract settlement that addresses the very real competitive threats and skyrocketing healthcare costs we face.”

They argue that their employees continue to enjoy better health benefits than “the vast majority of our customers.” Around 43 million Americans have no health insurance at all.

The supermarket chains claim they are being undercut by non-union firms, like Wal-Mart, which pay minimum wages. Wal-Mart, now the world’s largest grocery store, is able to pay low wages - $9.64 (£5.59) an hour, compared with an average of $15.98 (£9.27) for a union store worker.

[There is a] vast reservoir of immigrant labor in the U.S. who [employers exploit as cheap labor and who they expect] will heed company warnings not to join a union for fear of losing their jobs.

The length of the strike and the level of support it has attracted is an indication of the times, according to David Koff of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International union, which this year helped to organize a Freedom Ride of immigrant workers in buses across the country to draw attention to their conditions. “There is a growing awareness that living conditions are being driven relentlessly downwards and that concentrates the mind,” Mr Koff said. “Union leaders realize that they have to support each other. “The slogan ‘united we stand’ is often hollow but now content is being poured into it. This is a critical fight. A lot of the union leaders came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s and they were inspired by people like Cesar Chavez [the farmworkers’ leader] and Martin Luther King and they understand the importance of solidarity.”

He said union membership in the private sector had slipped below 10%, with membership overall around 13% of the workforce. One of the reasons for the unions prospering in the service sector of supermarkets, catering, and cleaning is that it is one of the few industries which cannot move its operations abroad.

Report 3: Teamsters Honor Grocery Pickets—Drivers Won’t Cross Lines at LA Area Distribution Centers

[This report is excerpted, for our readers’ information, from the Nov. 25 San Francisco Chronicle.]

Union pressure on three major supermarket chains increased sharply Monday [Nov. 24, 2003] when the Teamsters union said its members would honor picket lines that went up at nine distribution centers in Southern California.

The stores immediately enacted a contingency plan when the Teamsters announced their plans at noon, and licensed replacement drivers took over trucks. Still, the action has the potential of threatening the flow of fresh produce, baked goods, and other products to the markets just as Thanksgiving approaches. The stores remain open, operated by managers and replacement workers.

Some 70,000 grocery clerks in Southern California, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, have been idled. Workers struck Vons, owned by Safeway, on Oct. 11 after contract talks broke off, and on Oct. 12 Albertson’s and Ralphs, the latter owned by Kroger, locked out their employees.

The union and employers are at odds over a proposed contract that would shift more of the health care burden to workers and introduce a smaller compensation package to new employees.

Northern California grocery operations are not affected, although informational picketing has been staged at several Safeway stores in the Bay Area. The workers’ contract in this region expires next summer.

Some 8,000 members of the Teamsters Union, including drivers and clerks, are honoring a request made by the UFCW that they not cross lines at Vons distribution centers in Los Angeles, El Monte and Santa Fe Springs (both in Los Angeles County), Tulare and Mira Loma (Riverside County). Also affected are Ralphs’ centers in Los Angeles, Compton (Los Angeles County) and Riverside, and the Albertson’s center in Brea (Orange County).

“I think this will have a devastating impact on the (markets’) operations and probably at the least lead to shortages during the holidays,” said Chuck Mack, Western regional vice president of the Teamsters union, based in Oakland.

He said the decision was made to support the UFCW when negotiations, which had resumed Saturday and Sunday, were recessed Monday by a federal mediator and picket lines were extended from the front of stores to the distribution centers.

A spokeswoman for Albertson’s, Stacia Levenfeld, said, “This (Teamster support) is the latest in a series of actions. The union believes that staging events and increasing inconvenience to customers is more important than resolving the strike. This is just an effort to prolong the 44-day strike.

“Our stores are stocked and ready for Thanksgiving. We continue, based on our needs, to replenish our stores with fresh product from the warehouse,” she added.

A spokeswoman for the union, Ellen Anreder, said, “We’re not trying to bring the employers to their knees, we are trying to bring them to their senses.

“We caution people to be very careful of those trucks on the road. Scabs are fulfilling orders and scabs who come from who knows where are driving these very large and dangerous trucks.”