Grocery Workers Show the Rest of Us How It’s Done

Unless last minute negotiations result in management backing off their demand that health care benefits be drastically altered, 62,000 members of Southern California’s UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) are ready to walk off their jobs at Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs grocery stores as early as Sunday night, having already spent approximately eight months at the bargaining table.

The all-important 72-hour notification to terminate the contract expires Sunday night.  At that time the union can choose either to call a strike or, if there are genuine signs of progress, continue negotiating without a contract in place.

That they are teetering on the precipice is itself remarkable.  Considering that the UFCW went out on a debilitating 141-day strike in 2003-2004, many people (including grocery store management and their lawyers) were betting that the membership, despite their truculent rhetoric and saber-rattling, would chicken out as they drew closer to zero hour.  After all, it’s one thing to talk tough, but it’s a whole other deal to back it up with decisive action—particularly when memories of the previous strike are still fresh in everyone’s minds.

But clearly the UFCW rank-and-file is prepared to act.  One reason for their willingness is that they are a tough, loyal union, whose members have complete confidence in their elected leadership; another is that management’s offer (if it remains as is) simply leaves them no choice but to hit the bricks.  Management’s hard-line position has made it eminently clear that they’re intent on hollowing out the UFCW’s medical plan, and that this offer is but the first salvo.

Given the general perception of unions, management’s timing makes perverse sense.  Having reckoned that organized labor, both locally and nationally, is too weak, distracted and demoralized to put up much of a fight, store executives believe now is the opportune time to attack—that the stars are in alignment—that the UFCW membership is ripe for having its health package chipped away.  But management appears to have badly underestimated the membership.

To a former union bargainer (I served as chief negotiator on three contracts, and as a committee member on three others), the UFCW’s determination and commitment is nothing short of astounding.

Typically, because of the psychological trauma and potential economic impact, it’s fairly difficult to get a membership to go on strike even once, so getting people to go out twice in a relatively short time is remarkable.  Of course, management is acutely aware of that fact, which is why they’re making this aggressive move now.  They’re willing to roll the dice.  But, painful memories or not, these UFCW members have surprised everyone with their steely resolve.

On the subject of memories, the previous strike brings up another painful one as well—and not just for the membership.  When the union struck the grocers in 2003, Ralphs’ management got themselves into an unbelievably messy situation.

Looking for creative ways to avoid the full impact of a shutdown (and having found out the hard way that replacement workers were nowhere near as efficient as veteran employees), Ralphs’ management secretly approached more than a thousand of its locked-out employees and offered them jobs—but at stores outside their neighborhoods so they wouldn’t be recognized by the picketers.

And because store executives knew the union could legally request the names of the all strike-breakers, they proceeded to make a bad situation infinitely worse by fraudulently submitting fake names and fake I-9 documents for these employees.  When word got out, not only was it an unmitigated public relations debacle, it was also a felony.  After being indicted by a federal grand jury, Ralphs immediately pled guilty to the charges, paid a hefty $70 million fine, and quietly hoped that the matter would be forgotten.

We hope the two sides are able to reach an equitable agreement, so that a strike can be averted.  But if a strike is called, we wish the UFCW the best of luck in its battle with the grocers.  While there’s a long list of employees in other industries who have quietly rolled over and allowed management to take every liberty imaginable, the UFCW has chosen to fight back, and for that they deserve our respect and admiration.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.