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LOCAL Commentary :: Labor & Economics : Resistance & Tactics

Grocery strike reality check

Safeway is not entirely wrong and the UFCW is far from being right. The goals of my remarks are (1) to encourage other "progressives" to research both sides of an issue and (2) to introduce economics into the "progressive" discourse.
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What I'm about to say will be very unpopular in Santa Cruz. As has happened in the past, I will be branded as "anti-labor" when in fact I am speaking up for workers. What we want in the short term is not necessarily good for us in the long term. People will also attack me for not being a true "progressive". What labor leaders want is not necessarily good for us as consumers, taxpayers, or even workers.

The goals of my remarks are (1) to encourage other "progressives" to research both sides of an issue and (2) to introduce economics into the "progressive" discourse. Read on, and tell me what you think.

"JUST IGNORE THAT UNPROFITABLE YEAR"

The "largest supermarket strike in 25 years" is underway now in Southern California [1]. On Saturday, October 11, 2003, workers at Safeway ("Vons" and "Pavillions" in Southern California) walked off the job. The workers belong to various local branches of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Within a day, competing grocery store chains -- Albertsons and Kroger ("Ralphs" in Southern California) -- had locked out their unionized store employees. All in all, the strike affects 70,000 workers from over 800 grocery stores.

Throughout California and in Santa Cruz, "progressives" have assumed that Safeway is wrong and the workers are right. It should be obvious from the start that no issue is so simple.

Protests at the Mission Street Safeway have attracted the likes of Sam Farr (U.S. House of Representatives); Mardi Wormoudht (Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors); and Emily Reilly, Mike Rotkin, Scott Kennedy and Tim Fitzmaurice (Santa Cruz City Council) [2]. The workers, however, are at work inside the store. Their Northern California Safeway contract lasts through the summer.

One could conceivably attend a protest without taking sides, but many celebrities and politicians have taken a specific stance against Safeway.

The letter by Tom Lantos (U.S. House of Representatives) might as well have been copied from a UFCW flier. He asserts that Safeway is "one of the most profitable and successful supermarket operations in the world" [3]. UFCW's claim is that "Combined operating profits [for Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger] have gone up 91% since 1998." [4] You'd never guess, from these statements, that Safeway had an $828 million NET loss in 2002 [5]. You'd never guess that Safeway spent two thirds of its operating profit on store construction, store modernization, and other capital expenses from 1998 to 2002. You'd also never guess that operating profits dipped by a third in 2002, after years of growth [6]. Upgrading stores instead of paying off shareholders is hardly a sign of "corporate greed", and a precipitous decline in operating profits is hardly a sign of good financial health.

"WHO'S ON STRIKE?"

As a society we have much to be ashamed about when we look back at the treatment of workers. Miners and steelworkers come to mind. They tolerated dangerous conditions, endured long hours, and used up their meager earnings at the company store. Labor struggles were bloody, with "philanthropists" like Andrew Carnegie calling in the Pilkington Guards to kill the strikers.

The supermarket is a twentieth century phenomenon, and thankfully, supermarket workers didn't have to re-live the struggles of the past. Until recently, supermarket workers had the upper hand in labor relations. They succeeded in extracting generous concessions from employers.

Let us start with union organizing tactics. It was a common practice for the Retail Clerks International Association (RCIA) to send pickets to a store that the union wanted to organize [7]. Though the pickets didn't work at the store, and though the store employees were not asked to fill out membership cards or vote, the union could force the employer's hand. Grocery supply trucks were driven by the Teamsters, who would refuse to cross the picket line. To prevent the failure of his business, the store owner had to recognize the RCIA, even if the employees did not want to join that particular union (there were several other, smaller unions in the field), or to join a union at all (some of the targeted stores were good places to work).

The protests we're seeing at the Mission Street Safeway in Santa Cruz are dangerous. Politicians, labor leaders and well-wishers from the community are in essence staging a strike -- even though the workers inside the store have a contract and are themselves not on strike. If protests are to happen at non-struck stores, shouldn't the protests be led by employees of the stores rather than by people from the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council?

And though we tend to ignore the employer's side, a labor contract is a two-way street. One party gives something up in return for something else. What if our local Safeway workers are subject to a "no strikes" clause? (Such clauses forbid strikes while a contract is in place.) If they are, Safeway gave them something valuable in return for that concession. An employer can't very well enforce a "no strikes" clause if the strike is orchestrated by outsiders who are not party to the contract.

"WE DON'T SELL MEAT ON SUNDAYS"

I believe that we should be paid for work done. X dollars per hour, Y dollars per month, or Z dollars per widget all seem like reasonable formulas, depending on the nature of the work. Unfortunately, X dollars per hour is never good enough for workers (and I use the term very broadly because even lawyers and doctors are guilty here). We want not only to increase our hourly wage, but also to change the rules so that we get multiples of that wage.

"Time-and-a-half" after 8 hours works for me, but look at these examples, all taken from historic supermarket contracts [8]:

RULE: Meat department must be staffed whenever store is open.
EFFECT: One or two specialists must be kept on hand even when the meat department is closed (e.g. late at night).

RULE: Meat cutter's work day begins at 9 AM. Premium pay kicks in after 8 hours of work or at 6 PM, whichever comes first.
EFFECT: Keeping the meat department open in the evening, when most people shop, requires the payment of overtime. Even though very little meat is sold in the morning, it is not possible to have the meat cutter start at noon and leave at 8 PM.

RULE: "[Meat department] hours shall be 9 AM to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday, inclusive. No customer shall be served who comes into the market before or after the hours set forth above." (This was from a real contract that covered Chicago.)
EFFECT: No meat can be sold during the evening or on Sunday, even if the store is open.

Though some of these examples are outdated, labor unions have doubtlessly crafted new restrictions.

"WELCOME, WAL-MART"

California is unique for the feeble penetration of supercenters. A supercenter sells general merchandise AND food. Wal-Mart is the largest operator of supercenters. By 2003, there were 1258 Wal-Mart supercenters in the U.S., but none in California [9]. Voters in Contra Costa County will decide next month whether to reverse an outright ban on supercenters [10]. Either way, we will not be able to keep these stores out forever.

What happens when supercenters take hold? [11]

- Supermarket chains close up and leave the area. This happened with Ralphs in Houston.

- Surviving supermarkets tend to focus on "high-end goods and services"

+ Supercenter food prices settle at 8 to 20% below supermarket prices.

+ Supermarket food prices are driven down by 5 to 13%.

= Supermarket wages and benefits remain stable at first (but job losses are possible).

- Supermarket wages and benefits fall drastically within 8 to 15 years. The wage-and-benefit gap between unionized supermarkets and non-unionized Wal-Mart supercenters is over $11 per hour, and in competitive situations supermarkets typically reduce the gap by 40 to 60%.

- Travel increases, because stores are fewer and farther apart. The projection for the entire Bay Area ranges from 31 to 238 million extra miles driven per year.

Many of these effects are bad, and they get worse as supercenter market share increases. Any gains won by workers in the current Safeway strike will quickly be erased as supercenters gain market share. The financial health of the worker is dependent on the financial health of their employer. The best way to prevent supercenters from gaining too much market share is to ensure that traditional supermarket chains like Safeway remain healthy. Price competition will be merciless so costs must be controlled. Unless the UFCW workers want to end up at Wal-Mart, they ought to compromise.

"THE $7 PEPPER"

Now let us shift from the south to the north. The history of retail food prices in Northern California is interesting. Chinese Americans operated many small stores, and some large supermarkets, from the Depression years through the 1970's. The Chinese American markets were apparently quite impressive (Bel Air Markets is the successor of the last major Chinese American firm). They met the chain markets head-on, offering lower prices and longer hours. Various things kept prices down [12]:

- The use of free or low-cost labor in the form of family members

- The exploitation (not in a bad way) of loyalty to maintain good relations between owners and workers

- The imitation of chain supermarkets (chains would research new sites and experiment with new displays; copying was easy)

- The use of weekly ads and the sale of high-volume, low-price items

- Minimal investment in fancy store upgrades

We no longer have this sort of mediating competition in Northern California. It is my impression that grocery prices are extremely high here, compared to prices in other places I've lived (Toronto and Pittsburgh).

There is a pricing hierarchy in Santa Cruz, with Food Bin, New Leaf, and farmers' markets at the top, Trader Joe's and Zanotto's in the middle, and Safeway at the bottom. (I never get to Staff of Life, but I would imagine that they are in the Food Bin / New Leaf / farmers' market peer group) Nothing is cheap anywhere, but who can really afford $7 bell peppers from Food Bin? My partner works part-time at Mervyn's, and a pound of green peppers would represent an hour's work for him.

SOME price pressure, and again I say SOME, would benefit consumers here. Grocery prices depend on store wages and benefits, so the UFCW's claim that the grocery companies are the ones who are "rip[ping] off California" [13] is not entirely true. I'd like to see the cost of the UFCW's demands, expressed in terms of a percentage mark-up on my groceries. Only then could I decide whether the demands work for me. Whereas UFCW workers enjoy guaranteed annual raises, predictable hours, and other protections, many people have to cope with wage cuts and reduced hours. Should we have to cough up more money at the check-out counter under the circumstances?

"TWO-TIERED IS FINE, AS LONG AS I'M IN THE HIGHER TIER"

A complaint from the UFCW is that Safeway's proposed benefit structure will create two classes of workers. This is so, and it is a bad thing.

Problem is, unions love two-tiered arrangements. The seniority-based salary scale is a multi-tiered arrangement that rewards people solely on the basis of longevity. What about the quality, or more specifically, the economic value, of someone's work?

It's time for UFCW, and other unions, to advocate equal pay for work of equal value. (Hint: wages would rise at the low-end and fall at the top.) Why should equality apply to benefits, but not to wages?

"BUT THE SUPERMARKETS ARE COLLUDING"

If UFCW is allowed to represent 70,000 workers at over 800 grocery stores belonging to 3 separate chains, shouldn't those 3 chains be allowed to form their own negotiating group to deal with the union?

"I THANK MY EMPLOYER FOR MY GOOD HEALTH"

Much of the dispute revolves around healthcare.

There's only one solution to the healthcare problem. It's called single-payer. The quickest way to make it happen is to get employers out of the healthcare business. If General Motors dropped its health plan, it would be a matter of days before rioters forced legislators to act. Employers don't belong in the healthcare business. I need health care whether I'm working or not, whether my spouse is working or not, whether my parents are working or not, and so on.

Employers use health benefits to keep us in jobs we don't like. Remember the days before COBRA and HIPAA? Leaving your job meant losing your health benefits. Taking a new job -- even one with the best possible health coverage -- meant starting a 6-month waiting period ("pre-existing condition exclusion"). Employers still dangle health insurance and other "benefits" before us to keep us around.

We also don't get much choice when we leave insurance company negotiations to employers or unions. These health insurance buyers adopt a one-size-fits-all model that rewards some people and penalizes others. Why, for example, should a married person get $600 a month from her employer for family coverage, when her single colleague gets just $200 for individual coverage? The single person ought to be able to apply the extra $400 to co-payments, non-covered expenses, etc., but the employer or the union will say he can't.

"FREE HEALTHCARE"

Nothing is free. Unions have been stupid in maintaining their demand for low or no copayments and unreasonable in maintaining their demand for no employee contributions to premiums.

Copayments are smart. They discourage people from going to the doctor at the slightest sign of a fever, from getting antibiotics for a cold, etc. Spend 30 minutes in the waiting room of an emergency department and you'll be shocked to see how many non-emergency clients come in. By discouraging abuse, copayments reduce monthly premiums.

Reducing monthly premiums puts money back on the table for other benefits. Very few unions have noticed this. A typical Kaiser health plan for large unionized employers includes a $10 copayment for office visits. The monthly premium for one person is now pushing $300. My individual plan, also from Kaiser, has identical terms, but the copayment is $20. My monthly premium is $153. The difference stays in my pocket!

Copayments need not be an economic barrier, either. Many Kaiser plans, for example, have an "out-of-pocket spending cap", above which copayments are free. This keeps care affordable for people with chronic illnesses.

The other myth is that employees should never be asked to pay part of the monthly health insurance premium.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (no relationship to Kaiser Permanente, my health insurer), health insurance premiums rose 14% in 2003 [14]. Meanwhile, the Consumer Price Index went up 2.2% [15]. There is a local CPI figure for LA, and it is very close to the national figure (2.5% versus 2.2%). I will use national figures here, though, because I don't have a local health insurance figure.

An annual cost-of-living increase is meant to help the employee maintain her standard of living, not increase it. True gains are supposed to come from experience (the salary scale), performance (incentives) and promotion. Many unionized workers receive guaranteed annual increases (that is, increases not related to experience, performance or promotion). Even though these increases often exceed the Consumer Price Index, unions still call them cost-of-living increases.

The Consumer Price Index is meant to reflect changes in the total cost of the goods and services that a normal person consumes. The CPI is weighted, so an increase in a major expense, like rent, has a greater effect than an increase in a minor expense, like the cost of toothpaste. In a given year, some components of the index will go up and others will go down. For example, most Californians are saving a few hundred dollars on car registration, now that the Vehicle License Fee has been rolled back again. Meanwhile, the cost of hospital care is rising. The idea of a cost-of-living increase is that we will take the VLF rollback and other savings, plus a small top-up equal to the CPI, and apply the money to growing expenses, like hospital copayments. In the end our standard of living is supposed to remain the same after a COLA (cost-of-living allowance).

The UFCW workers can maintain their standard of living if their total compensation (wages + benefits) grows by 2.2% or so each year. Why on earth would Safeway give the workers a 2.2% (or more) increase in wages and also pay for a 14% (or more) increase in the workers' health insurance premiums? Safeway should offer 2.2% in both areas. UFCW's demand has nothing to do with "holding the line"; the union wants a big discretionary raise, disguised as "health insurance".

"I HAD NO IDEA!"

As you can see there's more to the Southern California grocery worker's strike than meets the eye. The UFCW won't give you all the information you need. Safeway won't give you all the information you need. Politicians and movie stars won't give you all the information you need. Your friends at the protest won't give you all the information you need. Economics texts won't give you all the information you need. It's up to you put things together, to ask questions, and to risk taking unorthodox positions. In this case, Safeway is not entirely wrong and the union is far from being right.

REFERENCES

In some places in the text, multiple facts are taken from one reference. This should be obvious from the context.

1. "Grocery strike grips Southern California", Dawn C. Chielewski, San Jose Mercury News, 2003 October 14
www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/business/7009368.htm

2. "Local union members picket Safeway", Karen A. Davis, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2003 December 11
www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2003/December/11/biz/stories/01biz.htm

3. Letter from Tom Lantos (U.S. House of Representatives) to Steven A. Burd (Safeway), 2003 November 21
www.ufcw.org/docUploads/letter%5Fsafeway%5F031121%2Epdf

4. "The Facts", UFCW, n.d.
www.ufcw.org/hold_the_line/facts_and_news/facts.cfm

5. "2002 Annual Report", Safeway Inc., p. 1
media.corporate-ir.net/media_files/NYS/SWY/ar/2002AR.pdf

6. "2002 Annual Report", pp. 16-17

7. Restrictive Labor Practices in the Supermarket Industry, Herbert R. Northrup and Gordon R. Storholm, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967, pp. 37-42

8. Restrictive Labor Practices, pp. 110-111

9. "Supercenters and the transformation of the Bay Area grocery industry", Bay Area Economic Forum, p. 20

10. "Big-Box Stores: Wal-Mart's supersize battle in the Bay Area", San Francisco Chronicle, 2004 February 08
www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi

11. "Supercenters and the transformation of the Bay Area grocery industry: Issues, Trends, and Impacts", Bay Area Economic Forum, 2004 January
www.bayeconfor.org/pdf/VVRBUN3P.pdf

12. Shopping at Giant Foods: Chinese American Supermarkets in Northern California, Alfred Yee, University of Washington Press, 2003

13. "We're your neighbors" [flier], UFCW, n.d.

14. "Employer Health Benefits 2003 Annual Survey", Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003 September
www.kff.org/insurance/ehbs2003-abstract.cfm

15. "Consumer Price Index - Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers", Bureau of Labor Statistics
 
 


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Comments

Re: Grocery strike reality check

I don't appreciate "What I'm about to say will be very unpopular in Santa Cruz" type statements they make little sense to me, if someone is not open to alternative perspectives it is of no use to tell them they are not, and serves to reduce the quality of your argument.

You bring up some good points but in all your ‘hard realism’ in relating market forces to job security it is quite out of place to make a statement such as “It's called single-payer. The quickest way to make it happen is to get employers out of the healthcare business.? Ignoring strong market forces at play in insuring we don’t have a single payer system. To neglect these market forces and their political implications is just as irrational as the compensation expectations of Grocery employees with the advent of ‘supercenter’ in the market place.

Ultimately I think the union is well aware the potential of the grocers going out of business as a result of their demands and market conditions. But their argument is only strengthened by that fact. If no agreement can be meet and the company goes out of business or the employees are locked out permanently the employees will obviously lose a great deal more then the employers. But they know this and strike anyway because they have demands that are waited more then maintaining their job. fair compensation or no compensation at all.

If not all the strikers and activists are aware of this they should be informed as your writing may help do. But I believe your characterization of them not understanding the market principals of the situation is unfair.
 

More on single-payer health

Thanks for your comments. My support for single-payer health insurance will make more sense if I tell you more about myself.

1. I grew up in Canada and "lived" the single-payer health insurance experience. It really works! It even works for corporations: they relocate jobs to Canada for the sake of saving money on health insurance! (Dental care, eyeglasses, and prescription drugs are not covered by provincial insurance plans, so employers do incur some costs, but the big items, outpatient and inpatient care, are covered.)

2. Here in California, I belong to Kaiser Permanente, which is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to a single-payer model. I can use any Kaiser facility I want. My doctor does not have to file an insurance claim or seek approval before treating me. And like a provincial government in Canada, Kaiser invests in preventive medicine because it recognizes the benefits. Kaiser is one of the few health insurers to promote immunizations directly to its members, for example.

3. I have individual health insurance because I am an independent businessperson. Recent efforts to shore up employer health plans (including the new state law, set to take effect in 2006/2007) don't help people like me. Were I in the market for insurance today, I would have no choice but to work for "the man".

4. I am in a same-sex relationship. Again, employer health insurance and government mandates don't help. In the few cases where my partner would be covered, his benefits would be fully taxable (yup, health insurance benefits for us fags are taxable, both to the State of California and to the Federal Government).

Everyone should be entitled to health insurance. UFCW's efforts on behalf of the Safeway employees, or our legislators' efforts on behalf of people who work for intermediate-size employers, don't do a damn thing to help people like me.
 

Re: Grocery strike reality check

I too support single payer health care. But this business of questioning the grocery strike has me puzzled. No one is talking about the actual benefits package proposed by Safeway in a realistic way. Both sides appear to be distorting reality, with the union claiming that workers will have to pay all of their premiums while Safeway claims that there is no such problem. And if the negotiations go to federal mediation, the final contract terms will be secret. This doesn't do anyone any good, to have the terms kept secret, for we won't know who "won" or "lost". Does anyone have a realistic answer to the question of what are the workers being asked to pay for their health insurance?
 

Re: Grocery Strike Reality Check

The Union's position on the healthcare controversy seems more reasonable now that I have read the information available.
If the union's opinion about what the Safeway employees are supposed to contribute is accurate, these folks face a daunting challenge paying for healthcare. I don't have a family of 4 to put on health insurance. But the cap of $1.35 per hour (see the flyer posted on www.montereybaylabor.org/grocery.htm )for the employer contribution to an employee's health plan is barely enough to cover the cost of health coverage for a single person, with about a $70 per month contribution from the employee. That is about the same as what I am paying at my current employer for my own health coverage.

What is the real problem is how to cover the costs of multiple family members on these proposed health plans and when (or if) the family members or the employee will ever become elligible for coverage. That's probably where the outrageous figures of $400 per month for the employee's contributions to the health coverage for a family of 4 comes from. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how much my employer charges for the same coverage, but I would not be suprised if it is comparable. Certainly the Safeway claim that the employees will only have to fork over $5-$15 per week to maintain their current level of benefits is bogus.

What is even more outrageous though is the content of the following flyer that I was passing out at the Safeway picket at the Morrisey store in Santa Cruz on Feb 14th:

DON"T SHOP SAFEWAY.

70,000 grocery workers have been on strike for almost four months in Southern California. They are fighting to keep affordable health care insurance -- something that all working families have earned. Safeway CEO, Steve Burd, wants to slash health care and turn Safeway into Wall-Mart. He is proposing lower wages, reduced benefits and in some cases -- NO BENEFITS. This is an attack on middle class Americans, and that is why we are here.

WHO ARE WE? We are Monterey County Central Labor Council VOLUNTEERS made up of concerned citizens and Union members, including UFCW members, in the tri-county area. We know that the strike in Southern California will affect all working class Americans and we are fighting against CORPORATE GREED to protect the interests of all workers.

ABSOLUTE FACTS ABOUT THE HEALTH CARE PROPOSALS:

* Safeway demands that new hires, with wages barely above the minimum wage, wait 12 months for medical coverage, and their dependents must wait 3 years for medical coverage. Newly hired baggers will start at the minimum wage, they will wait 19 months for medical coverage and they will NEVER have dependent coverage. If and when these new employees do qualify for benefits, the medical plan will be funded at 75% less than current employees. They will get whatever 25% of the current plan will buy.

* The current employees have been asked to make $5 & $15 co-pays into a plan that is currently underfunded. That means the $5 & $15 co-pay proposal is a "SHAM". The current employer proposal is not enough to cover the cost of maintaining benefits. The proposal directs the trustees of the insurance fund to REVISE benefits to fit what the employers are willing to pay. This will result in a 50% cut in medical benefits in addition to the $5 & $15 co-pay. This is NOT and has NEVER BEEN about $5 & $15.

* Retirees living on fixed incomes will also be covered under the same plan that will have benefits cut up to 50% and they will be required to pay 25% of the total cost of the plan.

Please don't be misled by Safeway's lies. Grocery workers are willing to pay their fair share. But Safeway said NO and walked away from negotiations and refused to let the issues be decided by binding arbitration. WHY? Because they don't want to be FAIR. THEY HAVE NO HEART. THEY ARE BAD CORPORATE CITIZENS.

Safeway's proposal will force employees to rely on overburdened public health care programs. As Safeway sends working families to government healthcare programs, its profits rose 80% over the last 5 years. CEO, Steve Burd pocketed $24 million in 2003. Californians shouldn't have to pick up Safeway's bill as it pushes families into taxpayer funded health care programs.

HELP STOP CORPORATE GREED. IF IT CAN HAPPEN TO 70,000 CLERKS -- IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Join us to tell Safeway we won't shop until you stop attacking health insurance.

For more information or to volunteer, please contact the Monterey Bay Labor Council Solidarity Movement at 831-633-1869. For more information see www.mbclc.org .
 

Labor Council = 1 side of story

Cutting and pasting from labor fliers and guessing that the information is accurate -- and complete -- is an example of what's wrong here. No one is willing to dig deeper. How can we make up our minds after consulting just one side? I mention a wide spectrum of primary sources in my article.

The Kaiser Family Foundation report will tell you a lot about health insurance premiums and the typical split between employer and employee contributions.

But this strike is not about healthcare anyway. It is about the employees' desire for an increase in overall compensation, an increase that far exceeds cost of living. Whether it is advisable for Safeway to grant such an increase at a time when the company is having financial difficulties (read the annual report) and bracing for cut-throat competition from Wal-Mart supercenters (read the Bay Area Economic Forum report on Wal-Mart's supercenter plans), is the question.

Once again, the financial health of the employees depends on the financial health of the employer. What will flier-writer say when Wal-Mart moves in and Safeway employees begin to lose their jobs?
 

Re: Grocery strike reality check

this sounds like the presidential election strategy...the lesser of two evils etc. etc.

what about the fact that the corporate way to do business is not the right way?

what makes safeway's way of doing business ok because they're not as scummy as walmart?
 

Safeway is as Scummy as Walmart

The only difference between Walmart and Safeway as employers is that the workers at Safeway have won union contracts that have bettered their situations. Today Safeway management is on the attack to ruin the workers whose labor keeps them employed.

What we are dealing with is a company that needs to be shut down everywhere. Allowing Safeway to continue to make profits in other parts of the country, including here, is part of the failure of the strategy of the UFCW leadership. All union work for the company should cease to save the jobs and healthcare of the southern California workers, thereby securing a more stable future for the workers everywhere.

Another part of this failure of the UFCW leadership's strategy is boycotting only one store when three companies are working together to break this strike.

Rank and file workers should demand the union misleadership join them in shutting down Vons/Safeway, Albertson's, Ralph's/Krogers!
 

An epilogue, I hope!

Well, a settlement is being voted on as I write this. I hope it's fair to both sides, and I hope it'll stick.

I want to add something that may not obvious. Safeway ain't my favorite store! I shop there once in a while, because I can't find baking needs, or affordable bell peppers, at the hippie stores I normally go to. I use the term "hippie" affectionately; you gotta admit that Food Bin and New Leaf are weird.

I do sincerely believe that the strike in Southern California, and the outside protests up here, are weakening Safeway and beckoning Wal-Mart to enter the California grocery business.

I will always say that the best thing any worker in a standardized field of employment (characterized by minimal entry requirements and a large number of identical jobs) can do is quit and start working for herself. That's what I've done in my own working life. Problem is, some people don't like risk, can't afford risk (what if you've got a family?), or run up against structural barriers (try getting health insurance if you're self-employed, or getting a business loan if you're black).

Working for any kind of large organization robs us of our dignity and deprives us of the chance to develop and use our talents. In short, standardized employment prevents us from being ourselves and realizing our potential as human beings on this planet. But for those who do not want to, or who simply cannot, take risks, "less evil" companies like Safeway are better than "more evil" companies like Wal-Mart.

Consumers, who have been left out of the public debate, also have a stake. Food prices are outrageous here. The UFCW has some part to play in that. I'm not saying that workers are wrong to ask for more. I'm just saying that customers, who will foot the bill, should have some say.

I also maintain the UFCW presented the health insurance issue dishonestly. Money is money. How to divide up overall compensation -- what portion should go to senior employees (via the salary scale), what portion should go to health insurance (via the employer's contribution to insurance premiums), what portion should go to overtime (via restrictive work rules), what portion should end up as cash in people's pockets -- is ultimately the union's choice.

The employees, as a group, aren't losing any ground economically if their total compensation rises with the Consumer Price Index. That index, whether we look at the Los Angeles figure or the national figure, has been stuck around 2 to 2.5% for several years and will stay there for some time yet.

Workers who ask for more than the CPI should be honest about it: they're asking for a discretionary raise. Then it becomes a debate about affordability and merit.
 

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