“UF-C-Double U! 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
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. The ILWU drill team entered the meeting in marching formation unleashing a fresh energy that resonated with the hundreds of clerks and grocery workers present.
After these speakers, rank-and-file workers from each local 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 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 up into several of workshops where union officials spoke about the legal rights of workers in the workplace and encouraged workers to wear union pins in the workplace. 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,
The crowd marched to a hospital being closed down, chanting “Healthcare, not warfare.” In
In addition, community support for the grocery workers has begun. A new group, the Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization (BASSO) that grew out of a solidarity movement with the
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 nation-wide. Whether it’s boycotts or strikes, it has to come nation-wide because they have too many arms on this octopus that is bringing in money to them and it’s true that 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 mighty standing ovation for his commitment to continuing the struggle.
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
The UFCW rank-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 coming fifty years.
The American economy has been gradually gravitating towards a service economy and away from a manufacturing economy. The service industry is a permanent fixture since Blockbusters, McDonalds and Safeway cannot be shipped over seas. 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 and further oppress and exploit the workers. Many workers will just accept whatever concessions they are subjected to and will compensate by working overtime.
This individual approach to systemic class attacks is leading to horrific working conditions in the
Besides the rising death toll from the American healthcare crisis, 35% of the elderly cut back on their food purchases so they can afford their medications. And among the terminally ill, 39% have reported “moderate to severe problems” in paying their medical bills. In every industrialized country in the world, the population has access to healthcare through government agencies. The
A wave of attacks on healthcare, the new hires (two-tier) and pensions is going to hit the Northern California grocery workers and the defeat in Southern California already gives the companies confidence to continue these attacks. We are witnessing a crisis in the American healthcare as well as in the labor movement with union membership so low that only the turn of the 20th century matched the current 11% of the working class being organized. If these waves of attacks continue to be successful as in Southern California, a serious step towards the third-worldization (or the Wal-martization) of the working class in the
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 in the Bay Area then it will suffer the same destiny as the
If the AFL-CIO begins to plan a national confrontation against the grocery companies, where all the responsible companies are struck until the end and the community is mobilized to engage in serious militant picketing that will reduce shoppers, then we will see these waves of attacks reverse. As the November elections approach, the AFL-CIO will donate millions upon millions to Kerry’s campaign and provide thousands of volunteers, which could be used to launch a real offensive against these companies.
The time has come for the millions of members to stand up for a winning strategy because what is at stake impacts far beyond the grocery industry and the present. 110 thousand CWA Phone workers might have to go on strike to protect their healthcare because the SBC phone company feels that since now the Grocery companies were able to reduce what is acceptable that they can fallow through the same path of gauging healthcare. SBC uses the same excuse of needing to cut expenses to stay competitive which is merely used as a pretext when they report $8.5 billion dollars in profit in 2003 which is 5.7 billion more than the previous year. 
No other working class in industrialized countries faces the hardships that workers face in the
Could a new labor movement revive and change our present conditions? That depends on whether we can succeed in a couple of struggles as examples of how to win. With some successful examples, a union in movement can feel its potential power and how vulnerable the companies really are. Until then, we will see the American working class subjected to an inevitable increase of misery and exploitation.
1. Navarro, Vicente. The Inhuman State of US Health Care Monthly Review. September 2003.
2. Safeway Annual Report, 2003
3. Kutalik, Chris and Uthappa, N. Renuka What we can learn from the Grocery Strike, Labor Notes Editorial. April 2004.
4. Sweet, Clint Phone workers across the West set to vote on strike against SBC Sacramento Bee. April, 15. 2004.