Bay Area Grocery Workers




U

-F-C-W!
Safeway, we’re coming through!” chanted hundreds of UFCW
members and officials at a meeting held on March 14 at the ILWU
Local 10 Hall in San Francisco. This meeting was the first step
taken by the Bay Area UFCW locals to prepare for the expiration
of their contracts which could lead to a strike next fall. Watching
the Southern California strike and the lockout unfold last October,
nine locals formed the Bay Area Coalition—the organization
that engineered the March event. This UFCW meeting was attended
by 800 people. 


The
Coalition represents nearly 50,000 workers at Safeway, Albertsons,
Ralphs, Cala, Raley’s, Andronicos, and several other independent
Bay Area stores. Eight of these locals (101, 120, 1179, 373R, 428,
648, 839, and 870) share a master contract that expires September
11, 2004. When the ILWU drill team entered the meeting in marching
formation, they unleashed a fresh energy. 


“Southern
California began the war of 2004 and we’re going to win it,”
said Local 839 Shop Steward Dorothy Smith. The sentiment of the
meeting was overwhelmingly to fight for decent contracts. “The
store managers are already telling us the contract from Southern
California is coming to Northern California,” UFCW Local 839
President John Briley warned in his opening remarks. The meeting
continued with Rev. Phil Lawson and Fr. Louis Vitale of the National
Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, California Senator Barbara
Boxer, and Teamsters International Vice President Chuck Mack promising
religious and institutional support. 


Rank-and-file
workers from each local then spoke about the coming attacks. “I
worked my way through college at Safeway and had a baby daughter,”
said Vince Herrera of Local 428. “With the baby’s check-ups
and the immunizations, the flu and earaches she had, I would still
be in debt today if I didn’t have a well-funded benefit package.”
With plenty of bag lunches, the meeting broke into several workshops
where union officials spoke about legal rights in the workplace
and encouraged workers to wear union pins. Members also discussed
with union representatives the tactics of the companies’ intimidation
and propaganda, including a Safeway video that scares workers from
striking and supporting the union. 




From
this meeting, the Coalition planned local community actions and
workplace training drives. Jim Grogan, a coordinator for the Coalition,
said: “We’ve been having routine meetings with the members,
letting them know what their rights are and talking to them about
escalating actions.” For example, on April 9, Good Friday,
the Interfaith Labor Prayer Service, in concert with the UFCW Coalition,
organized parallel actions taking advantage of a clause in their
contract that states, “No employee will be refused time off
between the hours of 12:00 noon and 3:00 PM on Good Friday for the
purpose of attending religious services.” The Good Friday action
in Pinole, California, drew around 100 people including 60-70 UFCW
members from Locals 588 and 1179. Lupita, a clerk in a Pinole Safeway,
said she attended to find out about the new contracts because she
knew nothing about the situation. 


In
addition, community support for the grocery workers has begun. The
Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization (BASSO) that grew out
of a solidarity movement with the Southern California grocery strikers,
has been organizing in the Bay Area for class solidarity across
industrial lines. BASSO organized a key event on April 2 in Oakland.
This event included a panel discussion with Craig Bague, a member
of UFCW Local 1442 in Southern California and part of their strike
force. Bague’s key points in his presentation to the community
included a strong warning: “You guys are in the fight of your
lives, trust me. They are going to do every dirty tactic you can
think of.” 


Bague
electrified the audience in his introductory remarks and continued:
“They have more money than you and that is the bottom line,
so the pressure has to come nationwide. Whether it’s boycotts
or strikes, it has to be nationwide because they have too many arms
on this octopus that is bringing in money to them and they are going
to act as a coalition. It’s like a fighter fighting another
fighter and saying, ‘I don’t want to hurt this guy because
we want to be friends afterwards,’ and in the meantime he is
beating the shit out of you.” Bague finished his remarks about
where to go from here: “To walk on a strike line out of your
own volition is what BASSO is about and that’s why this organization
is important.” Bague received a standing ovation. 


The
event concluded with Richard Mellor, a member of AFSCME Local 444,
offering the audience sharp political lessons: “In this coming
contract the employers will feel confident. The AFL-CIO has to make
it publicly known that a national strike needs to be prepared to
fight these companies. In order to do this we need to violate the
anti-union laws that have been in place to keep the working class
docile.” This political strategy came from the lessons of the
strike in Southern California that was narrow and isolated. Mellor
also warned the audience about past boycott failures: the Greyhound
strike in 1980, the Hormel strike in 1986, and the Diamond Walnut
strike in the early 1990s. All these strikes were lost because boycotts
were used as a tactic, rather than extending the strike nationwide. 


The
UFCW rank-and-file is nervous and lacks information about the new
contracts. Several workers have said that they will accept whatever
is offered, while many others assert that this is going to be a
critical fight for their very livelihood and they will not accept
concessions. 


These
fights are crucial to the power dynamics of the workplace in the
next 50 years. The U.S. economy has been gradually gravitating towards
a service economy and away from a manufacturing economy. The service
industry will remain a permanent fixture since Blockbusters, McDonalds,
and Safeway cannot be shipped overseas. The grocery industry is
one area of this service industry that is unionized and offers benefits
such as healthcare and a pension. However, a combination of the
union movement unable to unionize Wal-Mart and the recent series
of attacks on Safeway, Albertsons, and Kroger workers will push
the living standard of the working class down. 


Systemic
class attacks are leading to horrific working conditions in the
U.S. For example, 48 million people in the U.S. don’t have
any access to health care and more than one million people lose
their health insurance every year, while another 62 million are
seeing their health benefits reduced or their premiums increased.
Because of inaccessibility to health care, the

New England Journal
of Medicine

(336, no. 11, 1997) concluded that almost 100,000
people die in the United States each year because of a lack of needed
care—three times the number of people who have died of AIDS.
These figures occurred even when the U.S. spent 14 percent of its
GNP on health care—more than any other indus- trialized country
in the world. 


A
wave of attacks on health-care pensions is going to hit the Northern
California grocery workers as the defeat in Southern California
gives the companies confidence to continue their attacks. 


The
outcome of this situation depends on what strategies will be implemented
to defeat the grocery companies. If the UFCW keeps the Bay Area
strike isolated, then it will suffer the same destiny as the Southern
California strike. Safeway estimates that the Southern California
strike cost the company $167.5 million in profits (involving 17
percent of Safeway stores), which is insignificant compared to the
$10.5 billion dollars it earned in gross profit in 2003. The Southern
California strike proved that determination from the ranks can’t
be a substitute for a winning strategy by the union. The general
assumption was that the Southern California grocery workers were
not interested in participating in a labor conflict, but 91 percent
of the workers continued striking until the end. This was not the
factor responsible for having to accept such a horrific contract. 


If
the AFL-CIO organizes a national confrontation against the grocery
companies, where all these companies are struck until the end and
the community is mobilized to engage in militant picketing, then
we will see these waves of attacks reverse. As the November elections
approach, the AFL-CIO will donate millions to Kerry’s campaign
and provide thousands of volunteers, which could also be used to
launch a real offensive against these companies. 


The
time has come for the millions of union members to stand up for
a winning strategy, because what is at stake impacts far beyond
the grocery industry: 110,000 CWA phone workers might have to go
on strike to protect their health care if the SBC phone company
feels they can follow the same path of gauging health care benefits.
SBC uses the same excuse of needing to cut expenses to stay competitive—even
though they reported $8.5 billion dollars in profit in 2003, which
is 5.7 billion more than the previous year. 


Could
a new labor movement revive and change our present conditions? That
depends on whether we can succeed in a couple of struggles to serve
as examples of how to win. Until then, we will see the U.S. working
class subjected to an inevitable increase of misery and exploitation.







 





Javier Amas has
been working with the Los Angeles Strikers Solidarity organization.