About the California and Washington state grocery workers' struggles

(CV #34, August 25, 2004)


. The following article by Helen Jones, one of the supporters of the Communist Voice Organization in Seattle, was originally intended as a leaflet in support of local grocery workers. It deals with the experience of the California strike as well as the issues in Washington state. Following this article, a second article discusses the Washington state settlement. In both struggles, the workers faced not only intense pressure from the capitalists, but sabotage from the class-collaborationist leaders of the UFCW.

Support local grocery workers' fight
to save their benefits and wages

by Helen Jones


Western Washington Grocery Workers,
On The Offensive

. Sixteen thousand local grocery workers in King and Snohomish Counties face a strike or lockout in the coming weeks. They are members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union fighting to stop the owners of Safeway, Fred Meyer, Albertson's and QFC from slashing hard-won medical benefits by 30%. The employer's proposal also includes a 24% reduction in wages, and a two-tier system which would significantly reduce wages, benefits and full-time options for new hires, and reduce pension contributions. Given a 10% yearly turnover rate, this means that eventually the lower pay and benefits would apply to all grocery employees. A two-tier system is unfair to new hires, divides the workers, and acts to drive down the wages and conditions for all. It also means that employers would use the workers on the lower tier to do jobs normally done by higher paid workers. Despite knowledge of the employers proposals, the UFCW workers have been kept in the dark about the substance of their unions' negotiations for months, not knowing exactly what may be bargained away. Only in the last few days have the union and the owners decided to go public with their proposals and demands.

. This situation is atrocious. The capitalists methodically squeeze the working class with the top union leadership working alongside them. Concession-bargaining is universal in labor negotiations in the U. S. these days, and is an assault against the working class as a whole. As a result of the drive to cut costs and increase profits, in the grocery business and every other business, forty-one million (15-16%) Americans lack any health care coverage, with the number increasing. The capitalists' systematic, but piecemeal drive to cut medical benefits is their way of making the workers shoulder the cost of outrageously high-priced medical care. This drive is also a manifestation of the perceived increase in the capitalist's power to achieve those cuts.

. While the grocery millionaires' will is certainly to be greedy, what also must be considered is not their will, but their power, the limits of that power, and the character of those limits. For the grocery millionaires, the workers can lose medical benefits, wages, and full-time work, so long as the food chains rake in their millions. For the grocery workers, it is time to stand up, despite the union misleaders, and refuse to accept concessions. Let the millionaire grocery owners pay for the rising medical costs! Or let them use some small fraction of their wealth and power to fight for a single-payer health care plan.

Grocery Workers' Experience With the UFCW,
Past and Present

. Western Washington area grocery workers are rightly concerned about undertaking a strike within the current climate of Wal-Martization of labor practices. Washington grocery workers are aware that the UFCW grocery strike in Southern California lasted five months, and that the agreement finally reached in February solemnized almost the same labor concessions that were on the table at the beginning of the strike. Seventy-thousand workers in California, mostly minorities, showed courage and sacrifice, suffering huge personal losses. In Washington, UFCW workers do not want to go through the same hardship as the California workers and win nothing. Yet it appears very likely that the company executives in Washington will be willing to suffer through another fight in order to compel changes in labor practices that will lower their costs and increase their profits in the long run, just as they did in California.

. Therefore, the Washington workers must consider why the California strike failed. In California, the workers did vote for the strike, but the strategy was dictated by the union leaders. They decided to pull the pickets from Ralphs stores just three weeks into the strike, and saved picketing of Safeway until three months into the strike. The purpose and effect was to isolate the strike, and to permit one of the companies to continue operating throughout the strike. The leadership did not work to mobilize workers in other sectors of the economy. For example, the Amalgamated Transit Union (mechanics and transit employees) had 2400 workers on strike at the same time, and there could have been coordinated efforts. The union leaders slashed strike pay in December. They only used their standard "feel good," liberal tactics, getting local celebrities and politicians involved in a demo, several months into the strike. In addition, the union leaders did not solicit strike funds or even hold regular meetings to keep morale up and the members informed. Finally, the union focused undue attention on a particular individual -- CEO Steve Burd, as if one person were to blame for all that was at stake. The California strike did not fail because of the will of the workers or the lack of solidarity from other sectors of the economy, or the inability of labor to achieve such a victory. The loss is attributable to the union leadership, which works hand in glove with the corporate interests.

. The top union leaders in California betrayed the workers, just as they have here in Washington in bargaining and strikes of recent decades. Western Washington saw precisely the same tactics undertaken by the UFCW Local 1105 in 1989 -- narrowing the strike, excluding Safeway from picketing, "me-too" agreements, etc. Furthermore, the kind of behind-the-scenes concession bargaining currently being engaged in only results in more concessions. The UFCW workers saw this in previous contract negotiations in 1983 and 1986 -- with the union negotiating away hard won wages and benefits.

. And in preparation for a possible strike here, the UFCW Locals in Puget Sound are already making the same mistakes as their Southern California counterparts: failing to keep the membership active and informed through meetings, failing to draw other unions into the discussions on how the employers proposals will affect all working people, undue focus on Steve Burd, etc. The preparations and outcomes of these labor struggles are being closely watched in other regions, by other business owners planning to cut costs and increase profits.

. Enough of the union traitors past and present, country-wide. The Western Washington grocery workers can, by their resistance to the employers' pressure, prove that at a difficult moment there are still people in our midst who can uphold our common interests as workers, and refuse to become the miserable slaves of their bottomless wallets.

Support the Grocery Workers,
No to Concessions

. For the workers, time is of the essence. Nothing good can come from behind the scenes dickering over how much to steal from the workers. They should refuse any concessions at all, call for a mass meeting, and vote on what they want to happen next.

. If the workers choose to call for a strike, they should formulate a strategy of their own, one that will make the strike effective. They can do this by implementing the opposite of the California leaders' choices: by garnering support of other unions and workers generally, holding regular meetings, hitting the streets with leaflets announcing their demands, building solidarity with other unions. They should work to really shut down the stores, with big picket lines and roving picket lines. Grocery workers and those who support them should spread the strike to other sections of workers, boycotting all the stores involved. Activists can organize rallies and marches in support of the strike, to draw attention to the strikers and raise consciousness regarding the issues they are taking on -- issues of wages, healthcare and pension benefits, and justice which are pertinent to all workers. Workers of all industries and activists should demonstrate their solidarity with the grocery workers at picket lines, marches and rallies, and with support strikes. Attacks on healthcare, wages, pensions are a class-based attack by the capitalists on the workers, and a class-wide, fighting mobilization is needed to confront them. <>

Seattle/Northwest local of UFCW negotiates concessionary contract while keeping workers in the dark

by Helen Jones

. On August 16th, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) ratified the contract tentatively agreed upon by by union leaders and local grocery owners by an 83% vote. The contract directly affects around 11,000 Local members, and will affect thousands of additional grocery workers since several other local markets signed agreements to offer whatever came out of the collective bargaining. The details of the agreement were not released until the very day the proposed contract was voted on and the workers had just a few hours to review it and vote. The union recommended a "yes" vote on a contract which it claims "preserves affordable healthcare, protects livable wages, healthy pension plans and prevented the introduction of a two--tier system. "

. Yet the proposed contract is completely concessionary, and is a huge bite out of local workers income. From the beginning of the negotiations in March, the union leadership announced its own proposed cuts to members' healthcare and other benefits which would "save $120 million dollars for the employers" -- "although this does not seem to be enough for them. " Just how much the union's leaders saved the company is now detailed in the local papers.

. The new contract means employees will pay 15% of medical costs, as well as $7 per individual or $15 per family per week, in addition to higher co-pays for doctor visits and higher deductibles. As noted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "[w]hile the fees are modest, the payments represent a major shift for many grocery workers, who have been willing to accept lower wages in excharge for generous health care benefits. Currently, workers start at $7. 72 an hour. " That's a major shift. But the workers don't need to worry, the new contract also establishes a raise scale of 30 cents an hour after the first year, a bonus of 30 cents an hour for those who stay through the second year, paid in a lump sum at the end of it, and another 30 cents in the third year. Workers are reportedly relieved that a two-tier system was largely fought off, although the contract solemnizes a provision whereby new employees are covered by a separate health maintenance organization for the first 35 months of employment before qualifying for the established health care plan. Read another way, the new hires will be treated to lower cost (and most likely lower-quality) health care. Finally, other details of the new contract include a reduction of Sunday pay from time and a half to time and one-third.

. The complicity of the union leaders with the employers in the pillaging of the workers is evident. UFCW members were kept in the dark on the substance of the negotiations over several months, both sides going public only in the last few weeks of negotiations. The workers knew that the employer was proposing substantial cuts in medical benefits for current employees, and also severe reductions in wages and medical and pension benefits for new hires, creating a two-tier system that would quickly be universal given high turnover rates. Grocery workers also knew that its union was proposing mild improvements in more technical areas of the contract. (See www. ufcw1105. com/negotiations/grocery_proposals. htm. ) Beyond the outrageous pie-in-the-sky employer demands, and toothless union proposals, nothing was known for months, except that the union was trying to "save the employer" money at the expense of its members from the outset. There were no meetings of the rank and file called, no details provided of what was actually on the table, no preparations or discussions regarding a strike (besides an informal request a few weeks ago that members solicit support for a strike in their neighborhoods in advance), no drive to get other unions or the community involved, and a federal mediator was called in before members could consider what was on the table and what to do about it. Workers were railroaded.

. The UFCW Local 1105 website openly details the steps to the concessionary contract, including the aforementioned facts. It also includes, for example, a lament by the Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols that "Seattle does not need the bitterness and rancor that occurred during the 4-months grocery strike and lockout in Southern California. Companies there lost hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. . . . The workers, in turn, lost tens of millions in wages. " While the Seattle Mayor wants to appeal sympathetic to the workers, he tries to create a mood of threat and fear. This mood permeates the whole website.

. Hence, there was a sentiment among many grocery workers during the months of negotiations that a strike should be avoided at all costs. The empty and infrequent murmurs of a possible strike from union leaders were never a real threat, and the possibility of a strike was downplayed generally. In the stores, primarily only experienced grocery workers were enthusiastic about fighting to maintain the status quo via a strike. The union website contains one statement by one union member encouraging the workers not to give up any of their benefits, and even that call does not even mention the word strike.

. While the union was doing nothing to fight to maintain their members' wages and benefits, the northwest grocery workers were regularly reminded, via attachments to their paychecks, how costly their benefits were to their employers, and how the owners must compete with Walmart. Besides this, the loss Southern California dampened workers hopes that a strike would be effective in maintaining anything -- let alone gaining anything in the current contract negotiations. UFCW in Southern California led a four-and-a-half month strike that ended in January, resulting in a contract that was full of concessions, and was considered a loss. The Northwest UFCW Locals were silent about the whole issue, so it festered in the back of everyone's minds. How could they choose to analyze the errors of the Southern California UFCW, which failed to hold meetings, failed to prepare and organize effectively for a strike, and failed to garner community and workers support--without going against the constraints of the reformist leadership of the UFCW?

. The workers face tremendous pressure from the bad economy, the takeback offensive of the employers, and neo-liberal government officials. But in the face of all this, the grocery workers are stirring and becoming ready to struggle. The bad conditions themselves are giving rise to the desire to struggle. But this struggle will have to break out of the constraints placed on it by the reformist AFL-CIO leadership. The failure of the Southern California strike and the surrender in Seattle are results of their conciliation of the bourgeoisie. The UFCW leadership was afraid to carry the struggle through to the end, and sought to appease the employers at every step, rather than to extend the workers' struggle. The fight against the takeback offensive must therefore also be a fight to build up an independent movement of the working class. <>

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