So. Cal Grocery Strikers Speak Out

After three months of a strike and lockout, an increasing number of the 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California are growing restless over their union leadership’s conduct of the strike. Since the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) strike began at Safeway Inc.’s Vons and Pavilions stores October 12–Albertsons and Kroger Co.’s Ralphs chains locked out workers the next day–the struggle has generated widespread labor support, including a “stop work” meeting by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that shut down the ports in LA-Long Beach in November.

The high point of union solidarity came in November when Teamsters President James Hoffa announced that Teamsters warehouse workers would honor UFCW picket lines and receive strike pay. Yet in early December, the UFCW pulled the pickets–apparently under pressure from the Teamsters, who were reluctant to keep paying strike benefits over the long term.

Next came news that the UFCW was cutting strike pay–just before Christmas. And the UFCW, which pulled pickets from Ralphs stores as a show of “goodwill” in October, hasn’t resumed picketing those stores even after the grocery chains admitted they were sharing profits during the struggle.

KATHLEEN DOYLE, MARCO ESCALANTE and LIDYA BAOUNI are members of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles. Kathleen has worked at Vons for 17 years; Marco is a shop steward who has worked at Vons for nine years; and Lidya has worked at Pavilions for 28 years before moving to Ralphs.

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WHAT ARE the most important issues in this strike for you?

Kathleen: For me right now, it’s more the pension than anything, because I’ve got so many years in. If the two-tier [wage] program goes through, our pension will be split right in half, and there are no guarantees.

Marco: [The company’s] health care proposals have no cap, and as health care costs skyrocket, it has to come out of our own pocket.

Kathleen: They talk about how cancer patients will be taken care of, but they only want to give 10 visits, and if you go for radiation for 10 visits and you’re not cured, guess what? You’re on your own.

WHAT HAS the support been like?

Marco: This is my first strike, and actually going through it is a whole different experience than just hearing about it. When you’re out here and people come over and drop things off for you, it really touches your heart.

WHAT’S YOUR assessment of the strike?

Marco: It’s like slow motion. Things are turning but not fast enough to make a difference.

Kathleen: For me it’s been disgusting to see everything that’s happened. Why don’t they do things that might rile people up a little more and try to get something done? Taking us off line at Ralph’s should have never happened. To make it convenient for the customers? That’s the whole idea–making everybody inconvenienced. Then there’s our cut in strike pay. There’s also a lot of misinformation and they’re not letting us know what’s going on.

Lidya: They didn’t let us know in advance that we were supposed to pay the down payment to keep our insurance three more months. Nobody had enough money to pay that, so now 90 percent of our people have no insurance. We have a lot of people that are very, very sick, including myself. I’m diabetic.

Kathleen: I’ll say one thing, and I know I speak for us three. As bad as it gets, I’ll get another job before I’ll ever cross the line.

WHAT DO you think needs to be done next in order to win this strike?

Lidya: We all feel that our union went weak. We need action. Some people went back to work, and now we don’t have enough people here [on the picket line].

Marco: We need to break some rules. It seems they’re just relying too much on the courts and getting appeals here and there, wasting a bunch of time.

Lidya: The union keeps on telling us, “One day longer, one day stronger,” but we’re not getting stronger, we’re getting weaker. We are tired, we are frustrated, we are hungry, we are broke, we are sick. But we are here trying to keep our union going. Because we are the union, not them. They’re just representing us.

Marco: Maybe all the unions, instead of sending paperwork out to their members saying how important this strike is, should have a big meeting to talk about it.

Kathleen: Not only are we in the dark, but the union’s in the dark because they don’t hear from us. That’s why we have to take action to let them know that we’re not complacent, we’re not idiots, we know what’s up, and we want something done about it. We’re going to try to get a delegation together and start hitting stores, signing people up who are interested in what’s really going on.

WHAT DO you think is the importance of this strike?

Marco: It’s been a long time since all the unions got together and helped each other out. Even though it isn’t much, it’s a start. We need a union nation – if the whole nation got together, that would form such a power that it would go back to the days when everything was run by the workers.

Because the workers are the ones that established everything. If this strike comes out bad, there’s a lot of people out there that don’t like unions, that think unions just take your money and make decisions for you, and it will further that.

If it goes well, a lot more places will be unionized. People will say, ‘we want this too.’ We want to be able to fight, and want our voice to be heard.

Lidya: We are the beginning and we don’t know where it’s going to end. If we don’t go far, we know that next month, Food 4 Less, Rite Aid and SavOn are going to go on strike. What’s going to happen?

Kathleen: I cringe to think what will happen to this country if we don’t win this strike. These people who are in power, who answer to shareholders and make millions of dollars and are dictating to us what we can and can’t do and what we can and can’t have. How much more can they take from us?

GILLIAN RUSSOM writes for the Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.