The 2003-2004 Southern California UFCW grocery worker’s strike and lockout was a low point in the history of the labor movement in America. Grocery employees picketed the three major chain stores for 140 days, and despite public support, in the end they got almost nothing that they wanted, were forced to take on a burdensome two-tiered wage system (one for new employees and one for old ones), and scarcely impacted the bottom line of these huge conglomerates, who consequently turned the grocery worker job from a stable middle-class profession to the equivalent of flipping burgers. It was disgraceful and deeply troubling that the lives of tens of thousands of workers in California were turned upside down.
Now there’s a chance to rectify it. And you can help.
First, a little history. In October of 2003, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) voted to strike at Von’s, a major Southern California supermarket chain owned by Safeway, Inc. The other two big chains, Albertson’s (aka Supervalu) and Ralph’s (aka Kroger) locked out their workers within hours. It was an example of the collusion by the big chains that characterized the whole strike.
The main issue was the health benefits of the workers, paid entirely by the company; Von’s wanted the workers to pay 50% of health costs under a new contract. They also wanted to introduce a two-tier wage system… Beginning in early October, 70,000 members of the UFCW were on strike in the region.
Since the U.S. has no national health care system, health benefits are often one of the most important parts of employee compensation. The average wage of a southern California UFCW worker is less than $12 per hour, and most workers are guaranteed only 24 hours of work per week. Many workers hold the job mainly for the health benefits.
I remember most the expressions of public support during the strike and lockout. The chain stores were almost completely empty. Trader Joe’s was a mob scene, walking in there was like walking into some postwar zone. The shelves were ransacked, people were breaking open boxes faster than the stockboys could take everything out. Indigenous people were selling crafts in the aisles, an attempted coup broke out in produce, people were spray-painting “Viva La Revolucion” on the organic broccoli. (OK, the rest of that didn’t happen.)
The point was that Southern Californians were by and large not crossing the picket line and respecting the right of the workers to bargain for fair wages. This is especially salient because the employees were mostly bargaining for future workers, so that they could get better pay and benefits. I remember dressing my dog up for Halloween as a striking grocery worker (and if the picture was on this computer, you’d be seeing it right now). People really understood the issue and went out of their way to honor the strike. Supermarkets lost roughly $2.5 billion in revenue.
And that’s when the chains started to play dirty.
On October 31, they pulled the pickets from Ralphs as a gesture of “good faith” to focus them on Von’s; the employers immediately announced that they would be sharing profits and losses during the strike – thus showing at least that the capitalists have class solidarity. The union went so far as to urge people to shop at Ralphs, where their own members were locked out. Even though the chains are all national, with total sales of $30 billion a year, the unions shyed away from any national strategy, sending a few “informational pickets” to outlets in northern California and elsewhere.
This ended up being a bad strategy because Ralph’s traffic picked up and then they SHARED THE PROFITS with the other two chain stores, keeping all three afloat and able to sustain the revenue loss. Furthermore, Ralph’s started illegally rehiring union workers under phony Social Security numbers to keep the business going. The company eventually had to pay a SEVENTY MILLION DOLLAR FINE for “conspiracy, using a false Social Security number, identity fraud, falsifying information sent to the SSA and IRS, and failing to make proper payments to employee welfare benefits plans.” Criminal charges for the executives are still pending.
The strike wore on and finally was settled in February 2004, as public support waned and the union ran out of money for strike pay. It was a combination of factors that led to the awful contract they were forced to accept. They instituted a two-tiered system that offers lower pay and benefits to new workers coming into the system. And the health care benefits that the old workers retained were trimmed, which led to increased turnover in the business. This blog post offers a great summation of why this strike just didn’t work as well as it could have.
A generation ago, this strike would have been a complete victory for the employees. They were able to close down their stores for several months. When those stores were regional, the employers would not have been able to sustain those kind of losses.
But the grocery industry is increasingly a national and multinational industry. The companies decided it was worth taking huge losses in one regional market if they were able to break the back of the union.
In fact, it’s paid off handsomely.
The chain stores’ main complaint was that Wal-Mart and other discounters were moving into the region, and they could not compete with stores that offer no benefits. Three years later, Wal-Mart and other non-union grocery stores are not a factor in the Southern California market at all.
The employers always point to Wal-Mart and Costco as major reasons they need to cut costs (and pay their grocery workers less), but Wal-Mart and Costco control less than 8% of the Southern California market, even less than they had in 2003 when the employers claimed that this competition was forcing them to reduce wages and benefits for their grocery workers.
Indeed, the three major chains have retained all of the market share they lost during the strike and then some, propelling them to record profits. Ralph’s, Von’s and Albertson’s and their parent companies made between 2 and 3 billion dollars in profits last year. Their CEOs took home up to $9 million in compensation.
Meanwhile, under this two-tiered system, nearly half of all grocery workers at these three chains are making less than the people who work right next to them doing the same job every day. And practically nobody is receiving quality benefits. Rick Wartzman spelled it out in an article in the LA Times:
The reason: These are folks who joined the Pleasanton, Calif.-based supermarket giant after the 4 1/2 -month strike and lockout that ended in February 2004. And under the contract the United Food and Commercial Workers union signed with Safeway, Kroger Co.’s Ralphs chain and Albertsons (now owned by Supervalu Inc.), new employees can’t get any health benefits for 12 to 18 months. Their families aren’t eligible to be covered for 30 months.
Going without insurance for so long “is completely stressful,” says Suzanne Demers, who went to work at Safeway’s Vons market in Redondo Beach in July 2004 and earns $10.50 an hour training others, filling in at the Starbucks station and tackling a range of additional tasks. “You just hope and pray that you don’t get sick.” […]
Right now, figures from the trust fund overseeing the health plan show that a mere fraction of lower-tier workers have been in the job long enough to qualify for coverage: just 3,312 out of 12,520 at Vons; 3,771 out of 11,474 at Albertsons; and 2,044 out of 8,438 at Ralphs.
And how long will most of these workers last before they, too, head for the exits?
This two-tiered system is churning employees of what used to be a potential career out of the business; it’s become a low-wage service job. And it’s getting worse with every upper-tier employee that leaves and every lower-tier employee that replaces them.
The last contract for UFCW employees in SoCal expired a week ago; they granted a two-week extension and negotiations continue. Stater Bros. and Gelson’s, two regional chains in the area, have agreed to remove the two-tiered structure. But the big stores (the ones that can afford it) have not budged yet. In the meantime, there’s a lot you can do to help.
The UFCW has a website at RespectWorkers.com. There’s a petition over there that I ask all of you to sign.
By signing this petition, you are indicating your support for compensating grocery workers fairly, ensuring that they enjoy a share of the supermarkets’ billions in profits, and ending the current two-tiered wage structure by endorsing equal treatment for equal work.
Full Petition Text:
I believe Southern California’s grocery workers deserve respect, and I therefore stand with them in support of the following contract goals:
–Fair benefits and pensions for all employees
–Equal treatment for equal work
–Elimination of the two tier contract
Another way you can support the employees is by patronizing those stores which have stepped up to their responsibilities. There is a worker-friendly store finder on their site which you can use to find the stores in Southern California which have shown respect for their employees. If you’re not in the area, I would suggest that Safeway/Von’s, Albertson’s/Supervalu, or Kroger/Ralph’s are NOT stores that you need to reward with your business at this time, until this gets ironed out. This can only work as a national strategy, in my view, because a national corporation can sustain a regional strike, as they did the last time.
I would also suggest that any Democratic candidate looking to make some headway in California would do well to highlight this issue RIGHT NOW and make sure that these large grocery chains are being held to account.
Nobody wants another strike. But there is an opportunity to rectify the deep injustice to working people that was perpetrated in 2004, and to ensure basic fairness in the workplace. I hope all of you can help with this project.