Oakland Benefit for Grocery Strikers

I recently moved up from Los Angeles to Oakland and since the inception of the LA grocery strike I’d been working with a group of people to help strengthen the strike and organize a solidarity campaign with a lot of the militant rank-file workers. The group was called the Los Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization. When I moved up to Oakland some of the people in LASSO asked me if I would organize a benefit and show a video the UFCW produced on the strike. The strike was continuing, but with sharp blows from economic hardship the workers faced from not being able to pay for the regular expenses of life.

I was very interested in the project but I wanted to make sure it would have a splash in the Bay Area. Most importantly, the contracts are up on September 11 for Albertson’s and Safeway workers in this area, which could mean an attack on healthcare and a cap on wages for new workers ­ in effect a two-tier system. As I proposed the idea to people who I thought would be interested in such a project, most people were too cynical to take it on and just grunted at the fact the union leadership was fighting in such a defensive manner that it didn’t give anyone hope. But a couple people saw the importance and were willing to dedicate time and work for such an event. We made a tight team of three and created the newly formed Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization.

We flyered at numerous events, had interviews on Pacifica KPFA, sent out emails to all the groups we thought would be interested and walked into Safeways and told the workers about our project. One time one of the workers was so enthusiastic about the benefit, he walked us to the back of the store where the workers punch in their time clocks and we had a little shop-floor meeting about the strike, the UFCW, and the importance of relying on ourselves so the continuing offensive against healthcare doesn’t take root here in the Bay Area. Only two workers took part in the discussion but about 6 or 7 were listening with intensity, carrying a serious silence in their facial expression.

We continued to organize for February 20 and when the day of the event came a nervousness took hold of me from the fear of no one showing up. But there were early signs of success. A BART worker (Bay Area Rapid Transit) came in the hall of the event 45 minutes early to tell me she found the flyer in a BART train; she completely supported us and gave me $30 dollars, but couldn’t stay because she had to work. As we started the event, a group of workers from UFCW Local 770 were in the front row, with the panel itself comprised of 3 workers from Orange County Local 324: Debbie Brown, Sheldon Curtis and Gary, along with Gerald Sanders, who is with numerous organizations like the electricians union, Cop Watch, and the Committee to Save Mumia Abu Jamal. Also featured on the panel was John Reiley, a member of Labor’s Militant Voice.

I introduced the event without knowing what to expect as I saw about 45 people the audience. I announced that the group just formed was called the Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization, which was really formed by a couple of people. I told the audience that the amount of people that were consistent and dedicated to building the event were less than the amount of fingers I have on my hand. I remarked that we are taught to believe that one person cannot impact or change major societal problems, but if a few people can organize a successful event like this, it can have an impact on the workers on strike up here, who in turn can have an impact on the workers on strike down south; individuals can make change but the system teaches otherwise not the case to eliminate hope.

I introduced the video and more and more people wandered through the door. All the chairs were taken and the late arrivals had to start standing. As the video ended, a strong applause rippled as we began to introduce the panelists. The first panelist, Gerald Sanders, expressed militant remarks about the futility of relying on the courts, binding arbitration, Democrats, Republicans or the union leadership for that matter, and the urgency of relying on ourselves based on the power of the working class, a message greeted with much applause took. Each time Gerald proposed such militant actions and methods, the audience immediately gave him a sincere applause.

Sheldon Curtis, an African-American worker locked out of his Albertsons job from the Orange county area, spoke about the hardships of the strike on his family and the difficulties of paying for his house, nevertheless stressing that his main obligation is too continue fighting no matter what. The microphone was then passed to Gary, who moved the audience to tears when he spoke about a conversation he had with his son, who asked if he should drop out of college because of the financial problems that arose from the strike. Gary then started crying and said the impact of the strike has challenged his importance and social role as a father. As Gary spoke about the deep psychological effect the strike has had, he still exemplified the notion of being firm and militant about continuing the strike. As the mic passed a warm sensitive applause was giving to Gary.

Debbie Brown then spoke about one of her co-workers and friends, who was one of the most militant picketers on the line and would walk the picket and demonstrate an example to the rest of the workers on the line. Towards the beginning of the strike there were valley fires in Southern California, which sent a disturbing smoke across the city. This lady that Debbie spoke about was sensitive to the smoke and developed a complication with her lungs and got ammonia. She was hospitalized and died from the severity of the complication. Debbie looks at her co-worker as an example of true human being who died for principles and honor.

John Reiley concluded the panel by advocating the need to extend the strike nationwide through out all Safeways. He said that to have a strike at the other Safeways is formally illegal because of the no strike clause in between contracts, but he asked how the company and police could deal with hundreds of thousands of workers on strike. He took the audience back in history and spoke about in the 1930’s when workers would take over the workplace and bring out the community to build a support system to win strikes. The laws the strikers followed were based on principles of fighting for the working class and not the establishment. The formal laws that were broken by the workers could not be dealt with by the police because no one can arrest 45,000 workers who have taken over their own workplace. He concluded his piece by advocating a workers’ party that can fight workplace struggles and win elections as an alternative from the Democrats and Republicans, eliciting strong applause.

As I looked across the room I now noticed the place was significantly filled with about 80-90 people. I gave one last call for the audience to donate money even if they’d done so at the door, and money started coming out of nowhere. An older man in his late 70’s or early 80’s insisted on speaking first so I gave him the microphone. He spoke about how he was first awakened in life by a steel strike in 1936 and how the grocery strike embodies so much for him. He began crying as he announces that he is donating 700 dollars to the strike, one penny for each striker. Three striking workers from the front row burst out in tears and emotion, walking up to the old man to give him a passionate hug. The audience was struck with a rare feeling, as if a special unification was taking place.

It took a couple of minutes for the audience to calm down from their sympathetic applause as I began the discussion and started handing the mic to people who wanted to speak and add their comments. Rank-and-file workers from an array of unions come up and spoke about personal experiences they have had in the workplace and how they see the grocery strike as an exemplified form of their own struggle. Workers from SEIU, ILWU, CUE, AFSME, the Oakland teachers union, the Berkeley teachers union, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, International Brother Hood of Teamsters local 921 and our very own syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World spoke about how the grocery workers struggle is their struggle and their struggle is the grocery workers struggle. Militant declaration after declaration took place about the need to rebuild a workers movement that has once existed and now is the time to start. Each declaration was met with a mighty applause. The idea of an ‘injury to one is an injury to all’ penetrated deep into the air of the hall to degree that there was nothing else to breath.

As I had to call for the ending of the event, I announce that we made $2,100 dollars night and I asked the audience to offer one last applause to demonstrate the success of the event. Soon a roaring sound of clapping hands emanated from the audience and transformed into a spontaneous outburst of singing the song, ‘Solidarity Forever’. Everyone grabbed each other’s hands and held them high as the whole room spontaneously made a human chain.

This was an inspirational benefit that I will never forget. It taught me that with dedication and effort, the outlook and consciousness of workers in America can change very quickly. Even though capitalism aims to socialize people into docility, it can never fully transform people into the robots the system wants. All the socialization in the world will not change the course of workers naturally fighting for their own collective better mine through creative and productive struggle. As they fight for control over their own lives, they naturally begin to fight against their own exploitation ­ proving that there is always potential for fundamental change.

JAVIER ARMAS, 22, recently attended Santa Monica College in Los Angeles and was a member of the SMC Progressive Alliance. You can send him feedback at javsacs@yahoo.com.

First published in www.lefthook.org