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70,000 Strikers, 139 Days — Lessons of the California Grocery Workers’ Strike

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by Alan Jones, Shop Steward, IUOE, New York

” The grocery workers’ strike “has huge national implications… It is a test of the waters ahead of concession bargaining nationwide in the new economy. ”
– Ruth Milkman, University of California Institute for Labor and Employment Christian Science Monitor, 12/11/03

For nearly five months, workers with picket signs had become a feature in southern California as 70,000 workers confronted three of the biggest supermarket chains in the country.

The strike/lockout ended at the end of February when workers accepted a concessionary contract that forces workers to pay for their health benefits (previously paid by the company) and gives bonuses rather than any wage increase. The new contract will create a two-tier system for new employees, who will receive lower wages and an inferior “health plan” for medical coverage.

The dispute gained national attention (it was the largest labor dispute since UPS workers went on strike in 1997), not just because of the large number of workers involved, but also because it signaled a serious new offensive by the employers to dismantle employer-based healthcare.

The grocery workers, represented by 7 locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), were fighting to defend the gains they had made over the past decades of hard struggles. The employers – Safeway Inc. (owner of Vons and Pavilions), Kroger (owner of Ralphs), and Albertsons – together control 60% of the market in south California and made $8.3 billion in net profits in the last four years alone, with profits up 91% since 1998.

While profitable, the supermarket bosses claimed that they need over a billion dollars in concessions from the workers in order to “compete” with companies, like Wal-Mart, which pay low wages and have little or no benefits.

The strike touched a raw nerve among millions of people in southern California, as the stores were largely empty and the companies lost an estimated one billion dollars because shoppers were refusing to cross picket lines. All across southern California, community people were organizing rallies, walking the picket lines with workers, engaging in civil disobedience, and having fundraisers.

Teamsters and Longshore workers organized solidarity actions with the grocery workers. There was a solidarity rally at Wall Street in New York City in February, against the corporate owners of the supermarket chains. With strike benefits down to $100 per week in the last month of the strike, very few workers crossed the picket lines – showing their determination to the very end.

Millions of workers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area have seen 500,000 good-paying industrial jobs in aerospace disappear in the 1990’s, which – following the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs since the 1970’s – has led to further class and racial polarization.

Union Tactics – A Failure
In a significant show of solidarity, Teamsters from Locals 848 and 630 refused to cross picket lines, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Locals 13 and 63 raised a million dollars to help the grocery workers continue their medical coverage. The AFL-CIO called for a nationwide boycott and informational picket of the 1,800 supermarkets owned by Safeway Inc. AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka has led “pray-ins” outside the homes of supermarket executives, and there have been demonstrations at stock holders’ meetings on Wall Street.

However, the hard fact remains that – despite the mass popular support – the union had not been able to stop strikebreakers and scabs from operating the distribution centers and supermarkets. This allowed the Big Three to use their huge resources, share the losses, and bide their time to defeat the strike by the sheer exhaustion of the workers’ resources. Many strikers’ families lost cars and homes because of the long strike. Many workers also complained that they were kept in the dark about the course of negotiations with the employers.

The union’s tactics of trying to play one of the chains against the other by removing the pickets from Ralphs distribution centers in December (and returning them in January) and offering $350 million of givebacks failed. That the supermarkets and distribution centers continued to operate with scabs despite huge losses clearly indicates the intent of the employers to use their combined resources to defeat the union and the workers.

What is Needed for Victory
One of the lessons from the strike was the necessity to use mass picketing to completely shut down the supermarkets and distribution centers. The unions should have extended their call for solidarity to the Teamsters and other workers, to honor picket lines.

The AFL-CIO and UFCW should have expanded the call for a national boycott of Safeway Inc. to the Big Three, and called on union members to organize solidarity strikes with the UFCW workers in southern California so that the bosses cannot use the profits they make from the rest of the country to keep them going in the dispute.

In every area in southern California, unions, Central Labor Councils, and solidarity committees should have organized demonstrations to support the grocery workers, raise funds, and use the combined strength of the union movement and the working class against the employers. Even the big-business press had to recognize that the heroic struggle of the 70,000 grocery workers to defend their wages and health benefits resonated widely with the economic pressures felt by millions of people.

A key reason the bosses were able to withstand the strike was because it was left isolated in southern California. The Big Three were able to use the profits from their operations in the other 49.5 states to outlast the strike. In order to win, the UFCW leadership needed to spread the struggle among the hundreds of thousands of UFCW members who work at Safeway, Kroger, and Albertsons stores across the country.

All the issues in the southern Californian dispute are issues that are facing grocery workers nationally. This collective, national power of the UFCW should have been used to organize solidarity actions, including strikes, to bring the maximum pressure to bear on Safeway, Kroger, and Albertsons.

Such a campaign could have been linked with a serious national strategy to unionize “superstores” like Wal-Mart, which pays poverty wages ($10 less/hour than what the 250,000 union grocery workers in California make), provides little or no health insurance, demands longer hours from employees, and pays no significant retirement benefits. The reality is that either the unions will enforce decent wages and conditions on Wal-Mart, or Wal-Mart conditions will prevail in the entire industry, as employers will complain that they cannot “compete.”

A Challenge for Labor
Real wages have either declined or stagnated for large sections of workers since 1973, as corporate profits and inequality have gone through the roof. Productivity rates have increased dramatically, yet barely any jobs have been created over the past 3 years of “recovery.”

Workers in the supermarket industry in the Bay Area and Northern California are facing the prospect of a serious attack by the supermarket chains against wages, benefits, and conditions, preparing the ground for a national offensive against benefits like employer-paid healthcare and pension plans. Instead of spending millions of dollars to support big business candidates and corporate flunkies like Democrat John Kerry, the national AFL-CIO should be using these resources to help workers’ struggles around the country, as well as launching a campaign for a fully-funded, national healthcare system paid for by taxes on big business.

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