A Strike Looms in the Grocery Industry

Negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) continue to butt heads with Southern California grocery store owners in their attempt to reach agreement on a 3-year contract.   They’ve been hard at it for several months now, with their current labor agreement having expired last March.

While contract talks are almost always tense, these negotiations are proving to be especially acrimonious.  Not only are the owners looking to take advantage of what they perceive as the burgeoning anti-union sentiment sweeping much of the country, this time around they’re coming at the union with both barrels blasting.  The critical issue is health care benefits.  In the view of the UFCW, what management is demanding is a deal breaker, plain and simple.

Moreover, not only have the talks been singularly one-sided and unproductive, they are chillingly reminiscent of the negotiations that occurred in 2003, which, as most Southern California shoppers will recall, led to a 141 day strike against Albertsons, Vons (owned by Safeway Inc.) and Ralphs (owned by Kroger Inc.), and resulted in thousands of consumers switching over to Stater Brothers rather than crossing a union picket line.

On Monday, July 11, I spoke to Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 (with 24,000 members).  He ain’t happy.  Conger told me that if the grocery owners get anywhere close to what they’re asking for, the increased health care liability faced by the UFCW’s 64,000 members (comprising seven locals) will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the contract.  What the grocers are looking to do is eviscerate the entire medical plan.

This is no rhetorical exaggeration or bargaining chip.  It’s the hard, cold facts.  By all accounts, if the UFCW accepts the proposal currently on the table, the membership’s total remaining compensation package would knock them right out of the middle-class; it would cripple them, reduce most of them to glorified vassal status.

It’s a recognized fact among union leaders that getting the membership to go out on strike twice in a relatively short period of time is, for obvious reasons, extremely difficult.  It takes either a great deal of persuasion or a monumentally important issue to get them to hit the bricks a second time.   Memories of economic hardship are simply too fresh?particularly if the strike was a long and debilitating one, which the 2003/2004 walkout undoubtedly was.

And it’s this truism, coupled with labor’s perceived vulnerability (evidenced by the attack on school teachers and other public sector unions), that is motivating the grocers to go for the jugular.  The way management sees it, the stars are in alignment: a weak economy, a decline in union prestige, and UFCW memories of their recent strike.  With these negative factors in play, why not go for the whole enchilada?

Grim as that picture is, what’s almost as disturbing is the bizarre responses the negotiations are getting from other workers.  Instead of rejoicing in the UFCW’s tenacity in facing down greedy management?even if that requires the ultimate sacrifice of going out on strike?there’s evidence of other working people (including, incredibly, members of other labor unions) resenting what they see as the UFCW’s audacity.

Apparently, having already lost many or most of their benefits, some very misguided working people are allowing envy and resentment to cloud their thinking.  Having seen their own standard of living systematically chipped away by corporate America, they are stupidly and shortsightedly engaging in some perverse form of egalitarianism, hoping to see other workers made victims as well.

But because success, like failure, is contagious, they should be rooting for the greater good.  The prosperity of a country is measured not the number of wealthy people it produces, but by the size and depth of its middle-class.  The UFCW’s loss is this nation’s loss.  And those who don’t see it that way?those who are willing to accept a decline in their standard of living without a fight?deserve every bad thing that happens to them.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net


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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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