With the economy in the tank and prospects of a recovery looking dim, everybody knew that the grocery workers were going to lose. They would either accept the gutting of their healthcare benefits and pensions or they would go out on strike and lose big. With so many people unemployed and with aggressive union busting in the air, they might as well surrender. At least that’s what lots of smart folks were saying in the local media and Southern California political circles. Everybody knew.
So much for the prevailing wisdom.
It’s a good thing that the United Food and Commercial Workers were “too stupid” to listen to reason. As it turns out, they bucked the trend of labor retreat and won. As Local 135 President Mickey Kasparian’s message to the membership notes, “Thanks to the unshakeable solidarity of our Union sisters and brothers, we attained our most important goal, which was continuing to provide comprehensive health care to our members and their families. The grocery workers of Southern California stood together, strong and united, throughout this long and difficult process. Our members refused to accept anything less than a contract that protects their wages, benefits and working conditions.”
Indeed, the agreement reached after eight months of negotiations with Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons protects their members’ healthcare coverage, pensions, and even includes modest wage increases and bonuses. They were also able to work out some cost saving measures for medical benefits delivery that will help maintain the long-term solvency of the benefits trust fund while not impacting workers’ access to benefits or the quality of those benefits. In sum, the Walmart model was not imposed on the sixty-six thousand Southern California grocery workers. The union stood up to the corporate shakedown and held the line against the decline of wages and benefits for working folks in the private sector.
How’d they do it? When I spoke with Kasparian last week, he said that the UFCW learned a few valuable lessons from the 2003 strike: “We learned that you have to have a long campaign before you are ready to strike in order to line up your labor and community allies and be ready to move the minute the strike begins. So we were more prepared than last time. We also learned the importance of solidarity and support from other unions and labor-community alliances.”
Kasparian also noted that the grocery chains were still smarting from the economic pain inflicted on them by the last grocery strike and, despite their demanding give-backs for months, they weren’t up for another long fight. Earlier in negotiations, the companies had told the UFCW that if they went out, they would “make it a long and painful strike” so the workers would “never strike again.” In fact, the rumor was circulated that they were going to close down stores in the event of a strike rather than negotiate. This hard line lasted for months, all the way until the moment when the union had to give the “72 hour notice” of a strike. At that point, the companies grew nervous, waiting for the UFCW to blink—they never did.
Once the grocery chains knew the workers were actually “fucking crazy enough to strike” in this economy, the two sides closed a $72 million dollar gap in the final 24 hours before a strike would have begun. As Kasparian notes, “We had people ready with picket signs at every store” and “the operations people knew that we weren’t bluffing.”
When I asked Kasparian if the companies noticed the big rallies with hundreds of folks engaging in civil disobedience at Ralphs stores in downtown San Diego, Hillcrest, and elsewhere he said those actions were crucial. “They had a significant impact,” he said pointing out that they got reports back from the managers at the stores each time something happened. “It was a peek under the sheets,” Kasparian said. “It showed them what was coming.” Put another way: direct action got the goods.
Kasparian sends his thanks “to everyone in the community who supported us” and we should thank him and the all grocery workers in turn. By standing up to unjust corporate bullying, they didn’t just protect their own standard of living, they set an example for all workers that the race to the bottom is not inevitable, that you can stand up for yourself and win—even against great odds.
It took real courage for the workers in the UFCW to risk everything with no guarantee of success. But they stood up nonetheless. A little more of that kind of courage will certainly be necessary if we are ever going to pull this country out of the mess that Wall Street, the banks, and the corporate elite have created for us. And even if we don’t win every battle, it’s better to go down fighting than surrender our dignity and live like a serf waiting for a handout from the faceless lords of the global economy.
During one of the solidarity rallies at the downtown Ralphs I marched through the store with my seven-year-old son (who happily high-fived every grocery worker we passed), and I told him that we were there because our family believed that working people needed to support each other so that everyone could have a good life. One of the images that will stay with me from that day is the face of the middle-aged woman behind the deli-counter slowly wiping the tears that were streaming down her face as she watched the line of protesters march by her station. Clearly she was shocked and moved by this unlikely expression of concern and solidarity from total strangers. Who would have thought it was possible? Perhaps not many in the crowd of cynical media observers of this struggle did. But the truth is this: only that kind of spirit can summon miracles, small or large.
Read more of Jim Miller’s column, “Under the Perfect Sun”