Bay Areas Grocery Workers Fight
for the Future of American Healthcare
- by Javier Armas
"UF-C-Double U! Safeway, we're coming through!" chanted hundreds of UFCW members and officials at a meeting held on March 14 at the ILWU Local 10 Hall in San Francisco. This meeting was the first step taken by the Bay Area UFCW locals to prepare for the coming expiration of their contracts that could lead to a strike this fall. Watching the Southern California strike and the lockout unfold last October, nine locals formed the Bay Area Coalition--the organization that engineered the March event. This UFCW meeting was attended by 400 to 1200 (depending on the observer).
The Coalition represents nearly 50,000 workers at Safeway, Albertsons, Ralphs, Cala, Raley's, Andronicos, and several other independent Bay Area stores. Eight of these locals (101, 120, 1179, 373R, 428, 648, 839 and 870) share a master contract that expires September 11, 2004. The ILWU drill team entered the meeting in marching formation unleashing a fresh energy that resonated with the hundreds of clerks and grocery workers present.
"Southern California began the war of 2004, and we're going to win it," said Local 839 Shop Steward Dorothy Smith. The sentiment of the meeting was overwhelmingly to fight for decent contracts. "The store managers are already telling us the contract from Southern California is coming to Northern California," UFCW Local 839 President John Briley warned in his opening remarks. The meeting continued with Rev. Phil Lawson and Fr. Louis Vitale of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, California Senator Barbara Boxer, and Teamsters International Vice President Chuck Mack, promising religious and institutional support.
After these speakers, rank-and-file workers from each local spoke about the coming attacks. "I worked my way through college at Safeway, and had a baby daughter," said Vince Herrera of Local 428. "With the baby check-ups and the immunizations, the flu and earaches she had, I would still be in debt today if I didn't have a well funded benefit package." With plenty of bag lunches, the meeting broke up into several of workshops where union officials spoke about the legal rights of workers in the workplace and encouraged workers to wear union pins in the workplace. Members also discussed with union representatives the tactics of the companies' intimidation and propaganda including a Safeway video that scares workers from striking and supporting the union.
From this meeting, the Coalition planned local community actions and workplace training drives. Jim Grogan, a coordinator for the Coalition, said: "We've been having routine meetings with the members, letting them know what their rights are and talking to them about escalating actions." For example, on April 9, Good Friday, the Interfaith Labor Prayer Service in concert with the UFCW Coalition, organized parallel actions taking advantage of a clause in their contract that states, "No employee will be refused time off between the hours of 12:00 noon and 3:00 PM on Good Friday for the purpose of attending religious services." The Good Friday action in Pinole, California drew around 100 people including 60-70 UFCW members from Locals 588 and 1179. Lupita, a clerk in a Pinole Safeway, said she attended to find out about the new contracts because she knew nothing about the situation.
The crowd marched to a hospital being closed down, chanting "Healthcare, not warfare." In Oakland, in front of City Hall, Local 870 staged an action with about 30 people. The theme of this event was represented by a spokesperson from the religious community: "We pray that all those who work for social justice do so in a spirit of humility and hospitality."
In addition, community support for the grocery workers has begun. A new group, the Bay Area Strikers Solidarity Organization (BASSO) that grew out of a solidarity movement with the Southern California grocery strikers, has been organizing in the Bay Area for class solidarity across industrial lines. BASSO organized a key event on April 2 in Oakland. This event included a panel discussion with Craig Bague, a member of UFCW Local 1442 in Southern California and part of their strike force. Bague's key points in his presentation to the community included a strong warning: "You guys are in the fight of your lives, trust me. They are going to do every dirty tactic you can think of."
Bague electrified the audience in his introductory remarks and continued: "They have more money than you and that is the bottom line, so the pressure has to come nation-wide. Whether it's boycotts or strikes, it has to come nation-wide because they have too many arms on this octopus that is bringing in money to them and it's true that they are going to act as a coalition. It's like a fighter fighting another fighter and saying, 'I don't want to hurt this guy because we want to be friends afterwards,' and in the meantime he is beating the shit out of you." Bague finished his remarks about where to go from here: "To walk on a strike line out of your own volition is what BASSO is about and that's why this organization is important." Bague received a mighty standing ovation for his commitment to continuing the struggle.
The event concluded with Richard Mellor, a member of AFSCME Local 444, offering the audience sharp political lessons: "In this coming contract the employers will feel confident. The AFL-CIO has to make it publicly known that a national strike needs to be prepared to fight these companies. In order to do this we need to violate the anti-union laws that have been in place to keep the working class docile." This political strategy came from the lessons of the strike in Southern California that was narrow and isolated. Mellor also warned the audience about past boycott failures: the Greyhound strike in 1980, the Hormel strike in 1986, and the Diamond Walnut strike in the early 1990's. All these strikes were lost because boycotts were used as a tactic as a nation wide force rather than extending the strike nationwide.
The UFCW rank-file is nervous and lacks information about the new contracts. Several workers have said that they will accept whatever is offered while many others assert that this is going to be a critical fight for their very livelihood and they will not accept concessions. These fights are crucial to the power dynamics of the workplace in the next coming fifty years.
The American economy has been gradually gravitating towards a service economy and away from a manufacturing economy. The service industry is a permanent fixture since Blockbusters, McDonalds and Safeway cannot be shipped over seas. The grocery industry is one area of this service industry that is unionized and offers benefits such as healthcare and a pension. However, a combination of the union movement unable to unionize Wal-Mart and the recent series of attacks on Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger workers will push the living standard of the working class down and further oppress and exploit the workers. Many workers will just accept whatever concessions they are subjected to and will compensate by working overtime.
This individual approach to systemic class attacks is leading to horrific working conditions in the US. For example, 48 million Americans don't have any access to healthcare and more than one million people lose their health insurance every year, while another 62 million see their health benefits coverage reduced or their premiums increased. Because of inaccessibility to Healthcare, the New England Journal of Medicine 336, no. 11 (1997) concluded that almost 100,000 people die in the United States each year because of lack of needed care-three times the number of people who have died of AIDS. These figures occurred even when US spent 14% of its GNP on healthcare--more than any other industrialized country in the world. 
Besides the rising death toll from the American healthcare crisis, 35% of the elderly cut back on their food purchases so they can afford their medications. And among the terminally ill, 39% have reported "moderate to severe problems" in paying their medical bills. In every industrialized country in the world, the population has access to healthcare through government agencies. The US is the only industrialized country to have privatized healthcare, where workers are dependent on their employer for this critical service.
A wave of attacks on healthcare, the new hires (two-tier) and pensions is going to hit the Northern California grocery workers and the defeat in Southern California already gives the companies confidence to continue these attacks. We are witnessing a crisis in the American healthcare as well as in the labor movement with union membership so low that only the turn of the 20th century matched the current 11% of the working class being organized. If these waves of attacks continue to be successful as in Southern California, a serious step towards the third-worldization (or the Wal-martization) of the working class in the US will take place. Horrendous poverty, crime, the inequality of wealth, and even the degradation of the human spirit will characterize the coming period that has never been matched in our history.
The outcome of this situation depends on what strategies will be implemented to defeat the grocery companies. If the UFCW keeps the Bay Area strike isolated in the Bay Area then it will suffer the same destiny as the Southern California strike. Safeway estimates that the Southern California strike cost the company $167.5 million in profits (involving 17% of Safeway stores) which is insignificant compared to the $10.5 billion dollars it earned in gross profit in 2003.  The Southern California strike proved that determination from the ranks can't be a substitution for a winning strategy by the union. The general assumption was that the Southern California grocery workers were not interested in participating in a labor conflict but 91% of the workers continued striking until the end. This was not the responsible factor of having to accept such a horrific contract. 
If the AFL-CIO begins to plan a national confrontation against the grocery companies, where all the responsible companies are struck until the end and the community is mobilized to engage in serious militant picketing that will reduce shoppers, then we will see these waves of attacks reverse. As the November elections approach, the AFL-CIO will donate millions upon millions to Kerry's campaign and provide thousands of volunteers, which could be used to launch a real offensive against these companies.
The time has come for the millions of members to stand up for a winning strategy because what is at stake impacts far beyond the grocery industry and the present. 110 thousand CWA Phone workers might have to go on strike to protect their healthcare because the SBC phone company feels that since now the Grocery companies were able to reduce what is acceptable that they can fallow through the same path of gauging healthcare. SBC uses the same excuse of needing to cut expenses to stay competitive which is merely used as a pretext when they report $8.5 billion dollars in profit in 2003 which is 5.7 billion more than the previous year. 
No other working class in industrialized countries faces the hardships that workers face in the US and no other industrialized country in the world has wealth comparable to what exists in this country. All the excuses about needing to cut costs to stay competitive are justifications for the rich getting richer. Nobody is going to fight this fight for the grocery workers or for any other section of the working class currently under attack. The workers must organize and fight for themselves and attempt to implement a winning strategy through their unions.
Could a new labor movement revive and change our present conditions? That depends on whether we can succeed in a couple of struggles as examples of how to win. With some successful examples, a union in movement can feel its potential power and how vulnerable the companies really are. Until then, we will see the American working class subjected to an inevitable increase of misery and exploitation.
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 email@example.com.
1. Navarro, Vicente. The Inhuman State of US Health Care Monthly Review. September 2003.
2. Safeway Annual Report, 2003
3. Kutalik, Chris and Uthappa, N. Renuka What we can learn from the Grocery Strike, Labor Notes Editorial. April 2004.
4. Sweet, Clint Phone workers across the West set to vote on strike against SBC Sacramento Bee. April, 15. 2004.