Battle lines are forming
Union takes on big food chains
By John Beacham
At 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 10, less than a week
after their contract expired with Vons, Ralphs and Albertson's
supermarkets, United Food and Commercial Workers' (UFCW) locals
in Southern California went out on strike at Vons stores. The
very next day, Ralphs and Albertson's--in a move they had been
planning together for weeks--locked out the remaining workers.
The bosses have been hiring scabs for weeks.
But the unions are well prepared for struggle. They printed
up placards that read "Locked out" well in advance of the
strike authorization vote. The UFCW workers are keenly aware of
the viciousness of the bosses' demands.
More than 70,000 workers in the seven Southern California
locals are under one contract with the "Greedy Big Three." Vons
is owned by the mega-corporation Safeway. Ralphs is owned by
food giant Kroger.
The supermarkets have been demanding that their highly
multi-national work force cough up $1 billion a year in
payments for their health benefits, agree to freeze wages for
two years, take cuts in Sunday and night pay, accept a two-tier
wage and benefits scale--and much, much more.
Supermarket employees are barely making ends meet as it is.
Many of the workers are single moms who simply cannot afford to
make concessions to avaricious employers. The demands of the
bosses would represent thousands of dollars in losses for each
worker. Currently, a veteran clerk tops out at $17.90 an
hour--and it is rare these days for managers to schedule
workers to come in for much more than 30 hours a week.
Grocery clerks work hard at providing food for entire
communities across the country. The profits of each supermarket
chain are derived from the toil and sweat of their employees.
Employer-provided healthcare is a fundamental workers'
But even more than that, healthcare is really another form
of wages. Healthcare benefits have been won at the bargaining
tables of the past as one form of the over-all compensation
that workers receive. Any cut in benefits must be offset by an
increase in another area or it is nothing more than money taken
right out of the workers' pockets and put right into the
This has become an issue for workers all over the United
States, organized and unorganized, as companies large and small
try to cut benefits.
The permanent two-tier wage and benefit system that the
Greedy Three are trying to get is really a massive wage cut for
all future workers. The communities around these supermarkets
are made up of the same immigrant and low-paid people, women
and men, as the workers now going on strike. The fact that the
UFCW is ready to struggle over this issue is at the center of
why the community at large has come out in solidarity on the
workers' side in this battle.
Vons, Albertson's and Ralphs are swimming in money.
Led by CEO Steven Burd of Safeway, Ralphs and Albertson's
have been whining, in the press and to their employees, that
they can no longer compete with Wal-Mart, which pays its
non-union employees significantly less. This is an outrageous
Wal-Mart has less than 1 percent of the food market in
California and has not put even a minor dent in the Greedy
Three's sales. In the last five years, sales have increased by
123 percent for Albertson's, 84 percent for Kroger and 32
percent for Safeway. Plus, all three combined have increased
their profits from each dollar of sales by 4 percent, adding an
additional $500 million to their coffers each year.
During this same period, the bosses of these corporations
have raised their own compensation 260 percent. The top 15
executives for the Greedy Three are, on average, making $2.6
million a year. These same executives also control $70 million
in stock options.
Battle lines are forming
Teamsters drivers, who make all deliveries to the grocery
stores involved, have agreed to honor the picket lines. Accord
ing to the Oct. 13 Los Angeles Times, some drivers have been
parking trucks down the block from the stores. This has been
making it extremely difficult on the managers and unskilled
scabs, who have to drive the trucks into the stores. At least
one major accident has been reported.
People are reportedly staying away from the Greedy Three in
droves. They are doing their shopping elsewhere. The general
response to the strike has been one of overwhelming
On Oct. 9, the seven UFCW locals in Southern California
voted 98 percent in favor of a strike. The very next day they
went out. Union representatives are calling it war.
On Oct. 10, federal mediators sat down with the employers
and union representatives. They quickly learned that the two
sides are worlds apart. All negotiations have been broken
As of Oct. 12, the grocery bosses have arrogantly declared
in the media that they don't see negotiations resuming for
weeks. And, according to the Los Angeles Times, "Wall Street
has been pressuring grocers to trim labor costs."
Why are Wall Street and the Greedy Three attacking these
workers when super market profits are on the rise? What do they
hope to accomplish? And what will be the response to their
Recently, Verizon tried to attack workers' health benefits,
but blinked when they saw the resolve of the workers. Yale
University tried to squeeze its lower-wage workers with the
same kinds of demands. What they got in return was an invasion
and takeover of their town by sympathetic unions and labor
On Oct. 4, 100,000 immigrant workers from all over the
country converged on Queens, N.Y., to demand full rights for
Could it be that Wall Street and the Greedy Three are
underestimating the fightback of the workers?
Reprinted from the Oct. 23, 2003, issue of
Workers World newspaper
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