An Independent Rally for the Striking Grocery Workers
- by Josh Saxe
"We are engaged in a war," belted the small-framed Grace Regullano through a borrowed sound system mounted on a pickup truck. Beverly Hills sparkled under the midday sun, and Grace's audience - a couple hundred hard-pressed striking workers and ragged activists, jarred against the backdrop of an upscale Pavilions grocery store. A painted LASSO banner fluttered behind her, the translation of the acronym written below in black handwritten letters - "Los Angeles Strikers' Solidarity Organization."
"The grocery store owners' weapons are withheld paychecks and imposed starvation," she continued, "Ours are the withholding of labor power and the application of people power." Her words cued intermittent cheers and applause. When she finished, Javier, the MC and a gangly youth organizer, introduced the local picket captain, inviting her up to speak. With nervous composure, and possibly speaking publicly for the first time, Patricia would glorify the strikers' plight, testifying to their hardship and corresponding resolve. Most in the crowd already knew of her own bravery, she was a mother, wife, and worker, who had emerged as a leader and was pushing people to keep going to and past their emotional and financial breaking points in this strike. The strikers were engaged in a war, they and the companies were playing every card in their respective hands, and each side's slogan was "One day longer." If the strikers could starve, and stave off the bill collectors, for one day longer than the company could stave off angry investors and falling profits, they would win. Not only was the strike a war, it was a civil war- a workforce trained to respect and work with their management was learning that they could never trust them again, that the two groups were class enemies. The malice of the employers was apparent even at the rally - management had brought out three company goons to videotape and keep an eye on the event, they stood at the sliding doors of the grocery store looking down on us with smug composure.
More strikers spoke at the rally, more LASSO activists, as well as a New Left type who is the labor lawyer for the UFCW. The strikers spoke of their decades of service for their employers, the hardship the strike had caused on their families, and the naked greed of the bosses and the bloodsucking nature of scabs. At 2:00PM the Beverly Hills cops told us all to get off the street and onto the sidewalk, and LASSO's first rally was over.
At the meeting the following night all of those 15 or so organizers present deemed the event a success. It had been built in a week, and with intensive work we had pulled it off. One of our members, Mike Schwartz, had skipped work and spent a day at Beverly Hills City Hall playing politics with the cops and officials so that they would shut down the street for us. I and a few other people had spent a day driving around the city, visiting a total of 19 grocery stores, talking to workers and trying to convince them to come. The labor lawyer for the UFCW, John Grant, had given us permission to use their copier, so we made multiple visits to the union hall to make thousands of leaflets. In the end, while the rally was one of dozens the union has organized, ours was genuinely a rank-and-file affair, with workers and outside community activists doing the actual footwork and speaking. Workers, on their own initiative, came from as far as South Los Angeles, and visited as many as 5 stores on their own, to build up the rally.
In preparation for the rally I visited 9 grocery stores in the Los Angeles area, talking to many of the workers. In South Los Angeles groups of mostly black workers sat huddled around, not even really picketing - morale was very low. Many clearly walked the line only to receive a $40-a-day paycheck from the union, evidence of a union bureaucratic apparatus that has served to collect dues and never prepared its ranks for struggle. In other parts of the city, such as the famously gay West Hollywood, morale was higher, workers marched around and raised their fists when passing cars honked in support - the liberal community in the area was respecting the picket line, the management was stressed and the scab workforce chronically underworked at about $11-$18 an hour. At a store in predominately black Inglewood with strong morale from the strikers present, it was revealed that only 19 of the 80 or so original workers were still walking the picket line - everyone else had given up and found other jobs. It was said that many people were losing their cars and even getting evicted from their homes. The hardship the strike had caused was written on the striker's faces, but they seemed to remain strong. Something else I have heard is that some very demoralized workers are continuing to picket at one store while secretly scabbing at another. The strike, blatantly provoked by the Big Three grocery chains, is breaking people's moral fiber, wrenching apart friendships, and destroying lives, like a civil war might. But it is also teaching people to stand up and fight.
Things aren't quite as bad as they might seem. The strike is bringing people together, forming leaders, and teaching people - that solutions to the problems of everyday life can come through collective struggle. When this is over, 70,000 workers and their families and friends will have gone through the experience of social struggle, and when they filter on to other jobs, or stay at their present jobs, move, go to school, and go to church, like a dye in a glass they will spread that experience and inform their communities. The fact that workers with families have stayed out on the picket line at all after being out of work for 40 days is extremely significant, and speaks to a fighting spirit on the part of traditionally non-militant service workers. After all, grocery clerks haven't struck for two decades.
LASSO has met a number of extremely militant workers who have become involved in our organization - if it weren't for our small size I'm sure we would have met hundreds more. People like Eric, a Polish immigrant who has attended our meetings consistently and visited 5 stores to help build for our rally. Or Jose, a top-notch picket captain and butcher who helped us from day one and will help us organize movie showings. Or Patricia, the picket captain who spoke at the rally, Jose's wife and a well-respected leader on her line. Or Lordes, who has attained hundreds of signatures for a LASSO petition in support of the strike, and wants to start a new LASSO chapter in South Los Angeles. The success of our rally itself testifies to the strong backbone to the strike, not by virtue of the support of a bureaucratic union, but by virtue of the guts of the actual workers involved, who are risking everything, and diving into something they have never done or been trained to do. Grocery clerks, who are denied opportunities for heroism in their everyday lives, are demonstrating it on the picket lines every day.
LASSO will plan more rallies, but over the Thanksgiving holiday we will focus on sabotaging grocery stores. We have targeted the largest and most strategic sites and will be filling up our carts with frozen foods and leaving them in inconspicuous places where the items will melt. We will be creating scenes in the checkout stands, leaving huge payloads of food on the conveyor belts without paying for it, backing up the lines and prompting other customers to leave without paying. We will be jamming up their toilets with tampons, and accidentally knocking over expensive bottles of wine. In the meantime, the UFCW, the grocery workers' union, has sent picketers to Southern California grocery distribution centers, and Teamster truck drivers have been honoring these new picket lines. In a few days, at thousands of grocery stores throughout Southern California, the shelves of the big three grocery chains will be sparsely stocked if not empty. The working class of one tiny sector of the California economy will show what an enormous impact it can have- this strike is a tiny forebearer of things to come, something for corporate America to consider before it attempts new advances against our living standards. They have provoked this strike, but the workers, however tattered, however harassed by passerbys telling them to "get a real job," however betrayed by scabs who were once fellow workers, have remained standing. If the profit loss over the Thanksgiving weekend doesn't cause the grocery companies to buckle, those behind the workers will do more to smash their will. The defeat of the grocery chains will be made an example to all U.S. capitalists that their workers are prepared to hold the line against cutbacks by whatever means necessary.
LASSO exists to the left of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. I see it as a political space in which workers and community activists can come together in their pursuit of the class struggle, and develop a unique and heterogenous political identity. Soon we will start a film series with activists and strikers that will review American labor history- the films will be prefaced with introductions given by LASSO members, and afterwards we will discuss politics. Out of these discussions I personally hope that a pluralistic political identity will emerge that holds one belief in common - that the conquest of political power by the social movement is our ultimate aim, so that one day strikes won't be necessary.
If you are interested in getting involved and live in Southern California, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Saxe is Josh Saxe, 21, lives in Los Angeles and is pursuing a M.A. in History at Cal State Los Angeles. He's a member of the Los Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization.