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Surrender at the Supermarket

The four-and-a-half-month-long Southern California grocery strike illustrated perfectly the basic time-tested strategy of a successful labor action: Organize. Promote solidarity. Prepare for a long fight. Stay the course no matter how deep the financial hardship. Outlast the other side by a day.

Unfortunately for the 70,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, who this week return to work under their worst contract terms in decades, that successful strategy was employed by the three supermarket chains, not by the seven UFCW locals or their Washington, D.C., head office. The corporate owners of Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons/Pavilions presented an unmoving, united front, even when it meant absorbing a huge sales hit over 20 weeks. They helped their own cause with a profit-sharing deal, still secret when the combination strike-lockout started, perhaps even illegal. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer is suing them over it. But no matter. It did what they needed it to do, and the companies now have pretty much what they demanded in October: a contract that partially shifts the health-benefits burden to employees and moves new hires to an inferior pay scale. The three corporate giants slashed their labor costs. The union got clobbered.

“I don’t think it can be read any other way than a defeat for the union,” said labor expert Sanford Jacoby, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “I suppose it could have been worse. The stores are still unionized.”

Under the deal, negotiated in late February and ratified by employees last weekend, current workers at 859 stores from the Mexican border to San Luis Obispo and Bishop will continue to receive health benefits without having to pay premiums — but only for the next two years. Beginning in the third year, workers will have to pay up to $5 a week in premiums if the supermarket contributions to a health-care fund don’t cover rising health-plan costs. Chances are they won’t, given the continuing steep cost increases. Premiums for an employee’s family could be $15.

A second employee tier, which the union said in October it could never accept, will mean greatly reduced health benefits and pay for anyone hired by the supermarkets after the current employees return to work. Since most union grocery workers in Southern California now work only part-time schedules, and the stores assign work hours weekly or biweekly, a two-tier system will give cost-conscious managers an incentive to favor the new hires with the most hours.

UFCW International president Doug Dority insisted on calling the Southern California action “one of the most successful strikes in history.” But Dority was compelled to admit that his union was not up to championing employee health benefits nationwide. He attempted to recast the strike as a loud call for political intervention.

“We must have national health-care reform,” Dority said in a statement released on the UFCW Web site. “No one company, no one union, no industry or group of workers alone can fix the health care system . . . Now is the time for action. 2004 is the year to put health care reform on the political agenda and demand that every candidate for office commits to comprehensive, affordable health insurance for every working family.”

 

It is hard to overestimate the damage the settlement does to UFCW and its members. Union negotiators here gave in on almost every major point of contention at just the moment when grocery workers around the country prepare to battle the same three chains on precisely the same issues. The supermarket companies will now bring the Southern California contract and its major concessions to talks later this month with union negotiators in Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and Baltimore. In May, the precedent here could undermine UFCW efforts in Seattle. In September, contracts are up in Northern California, Denver and Las Vegas. Meanwhile, workers in Arizona and Indiana who stayed on the job and continued to bargain after their contracts expired will have a tougher time turning away concessions.

The real squeeze on grocery workers around the country springs from the knowledge that the long strike and lockout here decimated the UFCW’s strike fund. Negotiators for Kroger Inc. (owner of Ralphs and a number of chains around the country), Safeway Inc. (Vons and Pavilions here, Safeway and others around the nation) and Albertsons will come to the table knowing that the union they face lacks the funds to give them any serious trouble.

How could this happen? UFCW is in many ways a throwback to an earlier time when the grocery industry was made up of locally owned chains. Ralphs, Vons and Safeway were all homegrown Southern California stores, and as recently as the 1980s the CEO of Vons did commercials for his stores on local TV. The seven locals around Southern California were a good match for the supermarkets.

In the ’80s and ’90s, though, consolidation gobbled up chains like Hughes, Boys, Lucky and Alpha Beta, leaving three corporate giants. Kroger became the largest grocer in the world — until 2002, when it was overtaken by Wal-Mart.

The three chains’ coast-to-coast presence gave them the financial power to weather hard economic times, or strikes, in one part of the country as long as shoppers were still rolling their carts through checkout lanes in other regions. UFCW, though, remained fractured, promoting local and separate control while other unions were coming to terms with the need to centralize finances, strategy and organizing. New labor vigor crystallized around the Service Employees International Union, which promoted energetic organizing, scrupulous planning and carefully targeted work actions. The SEIU culture became the new standard in the 1990s, when its leader, former janitor John Sweeney, became head of the AFL-CIO. Among Sweeney’s opponents was Doug Dority.

The drawbacks of Dority’s approach became apparent as seven Southern California leaders squabbled over strategy, failed to acknowledge the corporate willingness to forgo short-term profits, and stumbled over outreach to other unions that stood ready with resources and good will.

Among the biggest gaffes and setbacks: The union failed to present a clear message to the public, shoppers and even its own members. In the early days of the strike, picketers outside the Albertsons at the Baldwin-Crenshaw plaza urged shoppers to get their groceries at, of all places, the nearby nonunion Wal-Mart. The union misplayed strong public support of the strike by lifting pickets at all Ralphs stores, thinking the move would put pressure on Safeway, when in fact the three chains were sharing profits. Having removed the pickets, some leaders invited shoppers to return to Ralphs while others asked them to stay away. In the words of one UFCW representative, “We don’t want them to shop there, but they have to do what they have to do.”

Outreach to the crucial Teamsters union was spotty. Early pickets were sent to grocery-distribution warehouses, but the Teamsters crossed freely. Later, just before Thanksgiving, the Teamsters agreed not to cross the lines — but they returned to work a month later after the UFCW gave them the okay.

Leaders realized things were going poorly and called in the AFL-CIO in December to take over strategy, but failed to follow up. They forgot to give special consideration to their more than 800 supermarket pharmacists and may lose them to another union. They got extraordinary support from dockworkers, janitors and entertainment unions, but they failed to take full advantage of that support or of a smattering of sympathy strikes in Washington, D.C.

The day before the settlement was reached, the hotel and restaurant workers (known as HERE) and the clothing, textiles and laundry union (UNITE) announced a strategic merger that will allow them to employ some of the tactics that have made SEIU successful — like lining up contract expiration dates and presenting management with the prospect of a nationwide action. That’s something UFCW was not equipped to do this time around. But in the future it may have to go that way.

“UFCW has to critically evaluate what happened here,” said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA. “It speaks to a broader need for labor solidarity.”

Meanwhile, around Los Angeles, community and shopper support that was squandered by union leaders may remain strong. Amanda Shaffer, organizer of the Community Strike Support Network in Northeast Los Angeles, said rallies to support strikers will turn into efforts to fight nonunion Wal-Mart and promote living-wage and health benefits.

“I’m disappointed that the union didn’t win something bigger and better,” Shaffer said. “Most of the people I talked to said they just couldn’t stay out any longer. But organizing went really well, and there’s a lot of energy to keep working.”

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