New Labor Spirit Stirs In California Grocers

The more than 70,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers on strike against four supermarket chains in central and southern California are fighting for more than a fair and decent contract. They are fighting for more even than preserving the health benefits they’ve enjoyed for years.

The strike against Safeway-owned Vons and Pavilions stores, which prompted an immediate employer lockout of workers at Kroger-owned Ralph’s and Albertsons stores, is quite simply about the future of work in the United States. It’s about whether the civilized notion that if you work for a living, you ought to be able to have a decent existence has any real meaning in today’s economy.

The strike/lockout began in October after talks with Safeway management collapsed over plans to cut health and pension benefits at Vons and Pavilions, eliminating in particular a long-standing contract provision that provides full coverage for insurance premiums. For a work-force that’s largely restricted to part-time schedules, earning on average about $25,000 a year or less, the health care package was a pivotal benefit. Under management’s new proposal, grocery workers could find themselves paying 50 percent more for health insurance. It’s a cost many will simply find unaffordable.

But that’s the point. Safeway and Kroger claim they can’t compete with low-cost, non-union discount chains like Wal-Mart or Cost-Co, which in recent years have aggressively expanded into the grocery business. Notably, nearly 50 percent of Wal-Mart’s 800,000 workers do not participate in the company’s health plan, finding it too expensive and too limited in what it offers. (Wal-Mart employees can pay as much as 25 percent of their wages for family health insurance.) Of course, that’s why Wal-Mart’s health care costs are 40 percent lower than the average company. That’s also why—big surprise!—the Walton family, which owns Wal-Mart, has come to sit on a $100-billion plus family fortune.

Safeway and Kroger’s claim that they can’t compete is also just a lie. Both chains remain highly profitable, despite a recessionary economy. Last year, Kroger posted $ 1.2 billion in profits. In 2001, Safeway profits totaled more than $3.5 billion in the United States and Canada. The larger truth here is that it’s the Wal-Mart model the more established grocery giants claim they have to emulate that can’t keep up, at least not as far as the cost of making it for a working family in today’s “new economy” is concerned.

“The company’s plan would mean at the end of three years we could be paying $95 a week for health insurance,” says Rafael Morga, a 30-year Ralph’s employee. If you’re a single mother working 30 hours a week at $7.40 an hour, with a child or two to support, that’s a plan that could mean revising your health care options to include trips to the county welfare department. Or, as many uninsured Americans are forced to do, visits to the emergency room when health care needs are put off too long. “We just want what’s fair,” explains Morga, “we just want to keep a decent way of life.”

Safeway rather also wants a two-year wage freeze, and drastically lower pay for new hires. Fortunately, the strike spirit among the largely immigrant, minority, and female workforce has been extremely strong, buoyed by an outpouring of public sympathy, as well some key support from more than 8,000 Teamster members, who in late November began to refuse to load trucks or deliver products to the stores. In response, the companies have attempted (with limited results) to use strikebreakers at both stores and distribution centers.

Safeway and Kroger are healthy, profitable companies. But their message is not. They are selling their workers and the public the deceit that “moving forward” means low wages and bad benefits, that working means working poor. But up is not down and labor is not dead and corporate management doesn’t deserve the last word about how good or bad our jobs have to be. Nor will they have it, as long as labor solidarity exists.

The strike by the women and men of the UFCW is over issues that affect millions of Americans. Health care premiums and other costs have spiraled, thanks in recent decades to the transformation of health care into a largely investor-driven system. It’s a transformation that’s left tens of millions unable or barely able to afford coverage. That’s one reason why there’s so much public sympathy for the strike.

“We’re getting more and more members and support from other unions,” Greg Den ier, the UFCW communications director, told the British newspaper, The Guardian (Nov. 29). “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.”

Is the United States going to continue to devolve into one big discount chain of an economy, where terms like “part-time,” “no benefits,” or “$7.40 an hour” routinely transform more hopeful concepts like “job opportunity” or “financial security,” or even “food on the table,” into something false and hollow?

To this question the UFCW grocery workers and their many supporters have declared a resounding NO! Their struggle deserves now the support of everyone who cares about justice on the job.

*** You can write to Mark Harris at

Mark Harris is a journalist who has written extensively on politics and health care issues. He’s been published in Utne, Z magazine, and other publications. He is a recent contributor to the book, The Flexible Writer, (4th Edition), edited by Susanna Rich (Longman, 2003).

Leave a comment