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Discriminating Against the Big Fish? Court Rules Against Grocery Workers

Court Rules Against Grocery Workers

by DAVID MACARAY

On February 11, a decision was handed down by a Los Angeles County Superior Court that has the potential to negatively affect the lives of California grocery workers. The ruling overturned an ordinance (the Grocery Worker Retention Ordinance) passed in December 2005 by the LA city council requiring large grocery stores to retain the existing workforce for at least 90 days following the takeover of another store.

To anyone who’s been paying attention to what’s been happening lately, the decision should come as no great surprise. From the family leave act to plant closure notification to pressuring the NLRB, Big Business has been challenging employee entitlements at every turn, gradually chipping away at what constitutes the workers’ core set of "rights." It’s a shocking environment. Arguably, there hasn’t been this much naked hostility and aggression directed toward working people since the 1920s.

Passed by an 11-2 vote of the Council, the GWRO was designed to provide a modicum of job security (continued health care and income) to workers and their families facing lay-off. Under the ordinance store employees had at least 3 months to figure out what their next step would be, should they be laid off as part of the change in ownership. After 90 days the new ownership retained the right to do as they wished-keep the existing workers, or get rid of them.

The GWRO was supported and lobbied for by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a pro-labor, non-profit organization committed to improving the wages and benefits of low-income workers in the city. The Alliance is the same organization that successfully fought to raise the minimum wage at hotels in proximity to LAX-a move, incidentally, that was upheld in a subsequent court challenge (It should be noted that the hotels have asked the California Supreme Court to review their case).

In his ruling, County Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau declared the ordinance to be "unconstitutional" in that, one, it was in conflict with California food safety and food handler laws and, therefore, was superceded by the state’s Retail Food Code, and two, by applying only to stores with areas of 15,000 square feet or more, it arbitrarily discriminated against larger (rather than smaller) grocery stores.

Judge Dau wrote, "The city has advanced no justification for treating establishments 15,000 square feet and under differently than larger stores."

Of course, the obvious argument is that targeting larger stores rather than smaller ones not only reflects a stark reality of the marketplace but appeals to common sense. Big fish eat smaller fish. Big stores gobble up smaller ones. Etc.

To suggest that an ordinance designed to limit the manner in which grocery conglomerates devour smaller stores is "discriminatory" unless it also limits the manner in which smaller grocery stores devour the big ones seems to miss the point.

Not surprisingly, the California Grocers Association (which represents the store owners and managers) praised the decision, going so far as to claim that since the GWRO was initially passed grocery store chains have more or less ceased to expand into the LA area. The Grocers Association depicted the grocery owners as paralyzed-traumatized, terrorized-by the specter of municipal government intrusion.

It’s hard to believe that the prospect of having to keep some employees on the payroll during the transition period would be enough to torpedo a major business deal, but that’s what the Grocers Association claims.

The good news is that, according to reports from the Alliance, it’s almost a certainty that the LA city council will appeal the Superior Court’s decision. While there’s no guarantee the decision will be overturned, it’s good to know the parties have no intention of giving up on it.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net