Union moves to strangle grocery workers’ struggle in Southern California

Picketing of major supermarket chains in Southern California by 70,000 striking and locked-out grocery workers is now entering its third month. Conditions facing the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members are rapidly deteriorating, with the union leadership effectively strangling the struggle of its own rank and file.

On October 11, workers at Vons and Pavillions supermarkets, which are owned by Safeway, Inc., struck against management demands for massive givebacks in health benefits, wages for new-hires, work rules, and other employment conditions. The following day, employees covered under the same contract at Ralphs (owned by the Kroger supermarket chain) and Albertsons supermarkets were locked out.

Over the past two weeks, the financial position of the UFCW membership has worsened dramatically. Since Christmas, the union bureaucracy has drastically reduced strike benefits for picketing workers, from $275 a week for 40 hours on the picket line, down to $100. Moreover, the workers will lose their health benefits at the end of January, when the term covered by the company-sponsored health fund under the previous contract comes to a close. Striking employees are not eligible for unemployment benefits, and union officials are telling the locked-out workers they will likely be denied benefits as well.

The same union officials who are slashing benefits for the striking and locked-out workers continue to pull in six-figure salaries and expense accounts. According to UFCW reports filed with the US Department of Labor, half of the top union officials drew in upwards of $200,000 in wages, living allowances and expense accounts in 2002, with union president Richard Dority pocketing just under $400,000. In the same year, Richard Icaza, head of Los Angeles Local 770, took home $278,783.

Cutting strike pay is not the only tactic employed by the UFCW leadership to undermine the struggle of the grocery workers and engineer a brazen betrayal. On December 22, the union pulled down pickets from the supermarkets’ distribution and warehouse facilities. The union had posted the pickets at these sites only three weeks earlier, more than two months into the strike/lockout. Up to that point, delivery drivers, represented by the Teamsters, had continued to bring supplies to the stores, although they refused to back the trucks all the way up to the loading docks.

Once picket lines were set up at the distribution centers, the supermarket chains encountered some difficulties getting supplies to their stores, a problem they eventually overcame by employing scab labor to load and drive the trucks. Neither the UFCW nor the Teamsters did anything to oppose this strikebreaking.

In fact, the supermarket chains have used strikebreakers from day one of the conflict, without encountering any serious resistance from either the UFCW or AFL-CIO union federation of which it is a part.

The decision to remove pickets from the distribution centers was not the first open blow by the UFCW leadership against the workers’ struggle. On October 31, a little more than two weeks after the start of the strike, the union halted picketing at Ralph’s supermarkets, despite the fact that union workers remained locked out and strikebreakers remained inside.

It was well known that the three grocery chains had agreed to pool their profits for the duration the strike, but the union leadership attempted to justify its treachery with the absurd claim that removing the pickets from Ralphs would increase the financial pressure on the other chains, while demonstrating the workers’ good will toward the general public. In fact, the result was the direct opposite—something that came as no surprise to the union officials.

They pulled the pickets from Ralphs in a calculated move to demoralize the strikers and sap public support for the workers by making it clear that the union had no intention of waging a serious fight. Up to that point, it was obvious that the public overwhelmingly supported the workers. The struck and locked-out stores remained virtually empty, as consumers, with few exceptions, respected the picket lines and shopped elsewhere.

For the UFCW, which was already looking for a means of engineering a betrayal and forcing the workers to accept a contract with drastic concessions, the widespread public support for the workers represented a problem. The longer it continued, and the longer the stores at the three chains remained virtually empty, the harder it would be to convince the workers that they had no chance of winning a decent contract. Hence the decision of the union bureaucracy to drive a stake into the heart of the strike by pulling the pickets at one of the chains.

Over the course of federal mediation with representatives from Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs, the UFCW leadership has already indicated its willingness to make huge contract concessions. On December 19, UFCW negotiators offered to have workers begin paying between $150 and $200 each month for their medical benefits, resulting in management savings of between $350 million and $500 million over the three-year life of the contract.

The grocery chains, which are seeking up to $1 billion in savings on medical benefits, quickly rejected the union’s new proposal. In addition to being concerned over their own profit margins, the supermarkets are under tremendous pressure from Wall Street to secure the full scope of givebacks being demanded. The supermarket strike in Southern California is being followed closely by big business throughout the country, which views the efforts to break the opposition of workers as an important first step in the wider campaign to further roll back health care benefits in industries across the board.

Efforts by a federal mediator to resolve the strike are expected to pick up again in the first half of January. The UFCW leadership is desperate to come to an agreement with the supermarket chains, describing its lifting of pickets from the distribution centers as a “good faith effort gesture to restart negotiations.”