Attention LA Shoppers


Since
mid-October, 70,000 supermarket clerks from nearly 900 Vons, Albertsons,
and Ralphs supermarkets in southern California have been engaged
in a round-the-clock strike (or have been locked out of work by
management) in response to management’s proposal to cut their
health benefits in half. At the same time, thousands of mechanics
and bus drivers from the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority
(MTA) also launched a strike when management demanded it be allowed
to take over the employee’s health care trust fund. 

The
three supermarket giants are everywhere, from San Diego to San Luis
Obispo. Their employee’s average pay and benefits are better
than working in sweatshops in downtown Los Angeles and the management
of these chains wants the workers to contribute more to the rising
costs of health care so the stores can better compete with nonunion
rivals like Wal-Mart. When United Food and Commercial Workers Union
(UFCW), Local 770, representing employees of the three supermarket
giants, refused to accept the companies’ demands, the union
tried to negotiate with management for two months before talks deadlocked
on October 5. The UFCW called for a strike on October 12. 

The
majority of the striking workers and organizers are women, housewives,
immigrants, people of color, and inner city youth, including thousands
of Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs). Corporate executives of the supermarket
chains underestimated these women and immigrant employees, assuming
that people who barely speak English wouldn’t go on strike.

The
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the API- wing of
the AFL-CIO, has been working closely with API striking workers
and has launched a public education campaign in the Chinese community
to win support. Most Chinese immigrants live west of downtown Los
Angeles, in areas such as Alhambra, Monterey Park (the Chinese “Beverly
Hills”), El Monte, Roland Heights, and San Gabriel. 

Despite
popular stereotypes about the API community, many Chinese immigrants
still live at the poverty level. Chinese immigrants who cannot speak
English end up working in Chinese-run grocery stories or restaurants
with minimum wage and no benefits. Those who are lucky enough to
speak English or who have some job skills can work in offices, at
the post-office, or in “foreigner-run” (in Chinese terms,
anything not run by Chinese is considered “foreigner-run”)
stores. 

At
the beginning, many shoppers couldn’t understand why, when
they are paid better than most of their fellow Chinese workers,
they were still going to strike. “I would be happy if my employers
gave us benefits,” some argued with Diana Truong-Davis, the
picket captain. But Truong-Davis says if this labor struggle fails,
their pay and benefits will eventually drop to sweatshop levels. 

According
to the union and strike organizers, corporate executives from Vons,
Albertsons, and Ralphs have refused to negotiate on the key issue
of benefit cuts, waging an expensive PR campaign and taking out
full-page ads in local newspapers against the striking workers.
The Los Angeles Times, which runs many lavish paid ads for
 the supermarket chains, has covered the strike, but their
editorials clearly support the supermarket owners. Several local
Chinese-run newspapers have also taken sides against the strike
or limited their coverage to the “good news” about the
surge of business at Chinese-run supermarkets as a result of  the
strike. 

Currently
the UFCW and APALA are supporting the strike and helping striking
API workers, considering this a very important labor struggle in
light of upcoming labor contract negotiations with other southern
California supermarket chains—some of whom incidentally are
also owned by the supermarket giants (for example, Food 4 Less is
owned by Ralphs and workers are represented by the UFCW, but they
are not on strike because their contracts will not expire until
next year). For their part, management is not backing off, blaming
the long strike on the unions. Some of the contested issues include:

  • Health
    Care: The employers say they just want their employees to share
    a “reasonable” portion of their health care costs—the
    so-called $5 a week for individuals and $15 for families. However,
    according to the union, this is a lie. The employers also want
    to increase co-payments, institute deductibles, and place caps
    on payments for prescriptions and surgeries. This amounts to a
    50 percent cut in medical benefits that would shift almost a billion
    dollars in health care costs onto the workers over the term of
    the contract. 
  • Wages: The supermarkets’
    PR argues that employees are well paid. According to the strikers,
    the companies selectively cite only the highest wage levels of
    full-time food clerks to back their claims—as if these wages
    are typical. Many employees earn less than $10 an hour; 75 percent
    of supermarket employees work part-time and must keep their schedules
    open so they can be called in to work at any time. On average,
    these on-call workers only make $312 a week.

Strike
organizers believe that it’s not just the living standards
of 70,000 workers—mostly youth, women, people of color, and
immigrants—that are at stake here, but the future of other
labor struggles in Los Angeles as well.
 


Lee Siu Hin is
an organizer from ActionLA in Los Angeles, a reporter for Pacifica
Radio KPFK-Los Angeles, and a council member of United Students Against
Sweatshops.