For over three months, shoppers and drivers in Southern California have seen them holding their picket signs. They are 70,000 supermarket workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and their picket lines extend hundreds of miles across the region. They are on strike against Vons/Pavilions (Safeway) and have been locked out by Ralphs (Kroger) and Albertsons. These workers are fighting three of the largest supermarket chains in the country; the financial statements of these companies show that together they earned $8.3 billion dollars in net profit in the last four years alone.
The same multi-billion dollar corporations claim they need to cut one billion dollars from their labor costs in order to compete with Wal-Mart. According to the supermarket chains, this future competition necessitates that they reduce the health benefits package of their workers by 50 percent. They also want to institute a two-tier wage system, with new employees receiving lower wages and fewer benefits, and they even want to reduce the pension benefits of workers who have already retired.
We cannot underestimate the importance of this strike. It has taken 70 years of struggle for these grocery workers to win the relatively decent wages and benefits that they have today. These victories will disappear if the companies have their way. The behavior of the supermarkets suggests that they understand just how important this battle really is.
From day one, the “Big Three” have acted as one company and they have not cracked since. They have displayed corporate solidarity unrivaled in recent memory. After the UFCW went on strike against Vons and Pavilions, Ralphs and Albertsons locked out their employees the very next day. In addition, the union’s strategy to pull their picket lines from Ralphs to try and break this unity seems to have backfired. It has been discovered that the three companies signed a pact to share all the money they earn during the strike. It is unclear whether or not the companies will be able to fulfill the pact since it is being investigated by California’s Attorney General for anti-trust violations.
Their corporate solidarity has been matched by the solidarity of the grocery workers, the community, and other workers across the region. This strike has touched the hearts of millions and the companies are feeling the financial pain that comes with such widespread support. From people who had never even seen a picket line to old union veterans, people are just not crossing the line to shop. Stores that were incredibly busy before the strike are now basically empty. The companies have suffered tremendously and have lost over $1 billion dollars in the last eleven weeks.
This battle is about a lot more than three companies trying to cut a billion dollars in labor costs, they have already lost more than that. The supermarket chains see this as a long term investment. The payoff will be a low-wage workforce with minimal benefits. If they succeed, it could pave the way for a widespread attack on the gains of the working class. Employers across the country are watching and will base their actions against their employees off the outcome of this strike. There are two central questions being raised on the picket lines outside Southern California grocery stores…should you have to work two jobs to make ends meet and is health care a right or a privilege?
That is why the 70,000 people who have been on strike/locked out for over 80 days are not just fighting for themselves; they are fighting for all of us. The grocery workers on the picket lines belong to an ever shrinking sector of the working class that enjoys decent wages, strong benefits, and the ability to play a role in their communities. These jobs did not exist before the labor movement created them and if the companies have their way, they will disappear. Somebody has to hold the line and that is what these workers are doing.
History has yet to write the final chapter in this strike. No one expected the fight to last this long; and no matter what the final contract looks like the grocery workers have been victorious in more ways than one. They are living the slogan the UFCW has adopted, “one day longer, one day stronger”. The companies are still waiting for the workers to give up and this is now the longest strike in the history of the supermarket industry. There have been many days over the past eleven weeks when the workers could have given up. Some workers are down to $100 dollars a week in strike benefits. Many have been evicted; some are even living in their cars. But the vast majority of the workers are still walking the picket lines with pride. They have stood strong against three giant corporations who had combined sales of $130 billion dollars last year. They did not beg, they did not roll over, they fought long and hard and they earned the respect of millions while doing so. These are victories that can never be taken away.
Meanwhile, wherever we are, it is on those of us who support the strike to take action to help it succeed. All across Southern California, community members have been organizing rallies, walking the picket lines with the workers, engaging in civil disobedience, and holding fundraisers. Kroger, Safeway, and Albertsons do not want the rest of the country to get involved. But we are all in this together and we need to show them that. We should boycott all stores owned by Kroger, Safeway, and Albertsons. It is fantastic that stores are empty in Southern California, now we need to empty out their stores across America. We also need to open up our wallets and donate to the strike fund. We cannot let these companies starve the workers into submission. Every dollar you can give would help tremendously.
In 1902 Mother Jones, who was a tireless crusader for the working class said some words that ring very true today… “My friends, it is solidarity of labor we want. We do not want to find fault with each other, but to solidify our forces and say to each other: We must be together; our masters are joined together and we must do the same thing.” One hundred years later, it could not be said better.
MICHAEL SCHWARTZ, 25, is a substitute teacher and an activist with the Los Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization. He is also a contributor to Left Hook. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.