Labor Advocate Online

Please Brother Dority—No More ‘Successful’ Strikes
How Can We Turn the Class Struggle Around?

by Bill Onasch

UFCW International President Doug Dority said the recently concluded southern California grocery labor dispute was "one of the most successful strikes in history. ... The men and women on the picket lines are genuine heroes."

I’d certainly agree with the second part of his spin statement. While the companies hired, by hook and by crook, several thousand strikebreakers, as well as bringing in management employees from other areas, there were few scabs among the strikers during the nearly five month ordeal of going without paychecks. They are indeed genuine heroes in my book.

And there were some successful components of this fight. The strikers built strong support in their communities and convinced hundreds of thousands to honor the picket line and shop elsewhere. As a result, the companies lost more than two billion dollars in revenue.

But heroism and sympathy alone don’t equal victory. Only a bureaucrat ensconced in an office with a view of the White House, and surrounded by "yes" persons, could look at the terms of the California settlement and characterize it as one of our best strikes ever.

Near Total Victory For Bosses
The fact is the settlement differed little from the companies’ final pre-strike offer. Their key demands were the establishment of a new two-tier arrangement, making all future workers second class citizens, and ending commitment to fully-funded health care. They claim these concessions are essential to be competitive with Wal-Mart’s imminent entrance into their market.

Wal-Mart, America’s biggest private employer, is virtually "union free" across the country. They enjoy the protection of labor laws that hamstring all union organizing efforts. Overall, only one in four workplace organizing drives ever get to the stage of a National Labor Relations Board election to certify bargaining rights. Unions lose about half of those elections in the face of vicious company campaigns that often involve illegal firings and threats. Of those unions who succeed in winning an NLRB election only half manage to get a first contract within a year.

Wal-Mart is better than most at avoiding unions. The first time they lost an election to the UFCW in a store meat department they closed the department rather than deal with them. The California bosses exploited this inability of the UFCW to organize Wal-Mart to demand concessions to be "competitive."

•Under the existing scale, current grocery workers can earn up to $17.90 an hour and meat cutters up to $19.18 an hour. For workers hired under the new contract, their top pay will be anywhere from $1.12 to $2.80 an hour less and they will have to work longer to achieve it. They will also have to work longer before they and their families are eligible for their meager health-care benefits.

•The current employees get no hourly pay raise; they will get bonuses in the first and third years of the contract that are expected to average 500 dollars. They will also be paid a dollar an hour less for overtime work on Sundays and pension credits are reduced.

•New hires will be put into a new, substandard health care plan with a cap of $1.10 per hour on employer contributions—this is less than nonunion Wal-Mart allocates.

•There is a $3.80 per hour health care cap for current workers. Coverage will remain the same for two years; in the third year the principle of fully-paid benefits ends with initial worker contributions of five dollars a week for single coverage, fifteen dollars for family, expected.

Think Globally, Exploit Locally
There’s an old homily that "there are no winners in a strike." If you just look at the arithmetic there’s often a kernel of truth—especially in the food industry. Customers have gone elsewhere to satisfy their nutritional needs and are not going to be eating all that much extra to make up for the lost sales. And, of course, the workers are not going to recover their lost wages, especially since their hourly rate remains unchanged.

Neither workers nor bosses are so stupid that they can’t figure out these drawbacks to strikes. Strikes and lockouts continue over matters of principle and long-term objectives that justify temporary sacrifices—if you win those objectives.

Even with a work force attrition rate of 10-15 percent it will take the bosses a while to recover their two-billion dollar loss. But, unlike the main stream leadership of the American labor movement, the grocery employers, like most of the rest of their class, have a long range plan. They were determined to take a temporary hit on profits to reap big benefits for what they hope will be generations to come.

They put aside their competition with one another for a united front against the union. They shared losses.

They also had the enormous advantage of vast national, even international, operations that allowed them the luxury of hemorrhaging red ink in one local area for one day longer than the workers could hold out. As long as the strike was confined locally it was pretty much doomed from the start.

Imagine what life would be for General Motors workers if the UAW had to restrict their bargaining to the level of local plants only. If Fairfax workers were on their own with GM demanding that they start paying 25 percent of health care costs how effective would be a strike only at their plant?

One of the great achievements of the CIO during its victorious rise in the 1930s-40s was establishing not only national contracts but many contracts covering whole industries. Industry wide contracts are what enabled a large part of the working class to prosper as what became known as "middle class."

Most of the industry wide, even nation wide agreements in manufacturing and transportation are long gone—as are many of the plants and companies they once covered. There were never any such contracts in the retail food industry.

Challenges Of a National Fight
The UFCW and AFL-CIO leaderships were certainly aware of the employer advantage and recognized that some nation wide approach was desirable. But they faced many obstacles.

First of all they would have to overcome the state of inertia that marks all conservative bureaucracies. Abandoning the comforts of an almost ritualized routine, adjusting to unaccustomed efforts to formulate innovative approaches, shifting from even toned appeals to the employers to listen to reason to public agitation against greedy bosses—all this is hard for them. There’s no John L Lewis, much less a Gene Debs, among our leaders who like to be close to our masters inside the Belt Way.

We should give Brother Dority some credit for issuing a statement calling for national health insurance.

"We must have national health care reform. No one company, no one union, no industry or group of workers alone can fix the health care system. We can patch it up. We can protect our members for another contract term, but the system continues to falter, exacting an increasing cost on both workers and employers and leaving more and more families without health care."

He went on to proclaim that the UFCW will "lead the fight" for affordable, comprehensive health care. However, if you go to the section of the UFCW web site called a "worker political agenda, "the only item mentioned relating to health care is a statement against the bipartisan "reform" of Medicare. At least these leaders aren’t going to be too pushy.

Some good things were done during the California struggle. Nearly four months into the strike, Linda Chavez-Thompson was sent to California where she addressed a rally of some 14,000 strikers and supporters. There were significant local actions organized by some central labor bodies, most notably in Baltimore and San Francisco. Much needed and appreciated donations to the strike fund were taken up across the country and on the Web.

More dubious efforts included actions trying to embarrass the Safeway CEO at his home and stock brokers with a demo in Wall Street. These folks don’t embarrass easily.

There was even an attempt to praise the Kroger CEO in the vain hope he might influence his colleagues to do the right thing.

There were half-hearted announcements of national boycotts, limited mainly to unreported press releases and obscure postings on web sites that were later scaled back to exclude Kroger stores in localities where contracts had been recently settled.

While some of these actions made people feel good none of these things had any appreciable impact on company earnings. They certainly lacked the scope and urgency of advancing what was being characterized as such a momentous fight for all of us.

The UFCW and AFL-CIO leaders could have made it clear that they would stand behind efforts of roving California pickets shutting down unionized stores across the country. In some places this would have meant violating no strike clauses in contracts. It would have meant a hell of a fight, the outcome of which could not be guaranteed in advance. But isn’t that the kind of effort called for in fighting to hold the line?

Other once effective tactics—such as transportation workers refusing to handle "hot cargo" related to the strike, secondary boycotts carrying the fight to third-party companies in league with the struck employers, and mass picketing at entrances to ensure struck locations are shut down—have been illegal since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947.

The fact is those tactics have had only brief interludes of tentative legality. They were legally tolerated only during periods of worker upsurge when the movement did whatever it took to win some justice—regardless of laws that were stacked in favor of the boss.

Reclaim Our Best Traditions To Fight For a Just Future
Isn’t it time to return to that perspective that built our unions in the first place? Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that individual activists, or even local unions, take a cavalier approach to the law. The bosses’ government maintains bodies of men and women carrying clubs and guns, and jails for every community, to deal with those who commit serious crimes—like trying to win a strike. Ill-planned adventures can lead to serious, needless victimization.

But truly mass actions in support of our human rights being repressed by undemocratic and unconstitutional laws can be effective over the long haul. Earlier generations of trade unionists accomplished a lot in violation of laws in the 1930s-40s. The civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s, with tactics of massive civil disobedience, did more for the conditions of Black Americans in one decade than had been accomplished in nearly a century of litigation.

The labor movement prevailed during the Great Depression years because it presented itself as more than just bread-and-butter trade unionism. It earned respect as a social and political movement as well, championing the cause of all working people. That’s what enabled them to carry out successful strikes despite the big numbers of unemployed. Many of the jobless cheered on the unions and sometimes actively joined in mass battles to support causes in which they had no direct personal stake.

There have of course been many changes since those days. We can’t simply try to imitate sit-down strikers or call for general strikes. We have to deal with present reality however unpleasant that may be.

But the fundamentals of class struggle have not changed—even though class consciousness of workers has been distorted by employer ideology that dominates our media, schools, and religious institutions. We have to reclaim our class identity—indeed we deserve some class pride.

We need to rekindle that spirit of a social movement, reaching out to the big majority of our class that is not organized in any union. We need to fight for justice in our communities as well as our workplaces.

We need to go beyond what the Depression-era labor movement was able to do politically—we need a mass political party that is really our own.

And, we should embrace, not fear, the relationship with workers of other lands, thrust upon us by the globalization of the economy. Class solidarity can afford no borders. Instead of a competitive race to the bottom we need to put together a truly international labor movement that can bring some peace, justice, and a better standard of living to our war-weary, poverty plagued world.

Can such dreams come true overnight? Hardly. We’re still writing the preface—the book is a long way from print.

But can anything good come from doing more of the same? Can we be inspired by a goal that boils down to being happy with anybody but Bush? Has our self-respect fallen so low that we can only pray that our masters at work and our masters in government see fit not to kick our ass quite so hard?

Personally I’d rather get whipped in a fight, like the heroes in California, than to get a pat on the head for doing tricks for ol’ Master.

KC Labor webmaster Bill Onasch is a retired ATU bus driver, a member of the US Labor Against the War continuations committee, and represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.