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Battle lines are forming

Union takes on big food chains

By John Beacham
Los Angeles

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' right.

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 owners' pockets.

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 lie.

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 support.

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 off.

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 cold-hearted calculations?

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 activists.

On Oct. 4, 100,000 immigrant workers from all over the country converged on Queens, N.Y., to demand full rights for immigrant workers.

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

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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