Labor Advocate Online

UFCW Proclaims Another ‘Victory’—
NASA Launches Search For Their Planet Of Residence

by Bill Onasch

A few weeks ago we pleaded with UFCW president Doug Dority to ease up on "victories" such as the southern California grocery strike/lockout (Please Brother Dority—No More ‘Successful’ Strikes). Since then Brother Dority has taken what many believe is a long overdue retirement. However his heritage of never losing a battle lives on with the new leadership.

The UFCW has just concluded an agreement covering 18,000 workers in the Washington area with two big chains—Giant, and Safeway—a player from California. To give them their due this deal was not quite as onerous as what nearly every observer characterized as a humiliating defeat in California. But it’s close.

In California the workers got small annual bonuses but no wage increase. In DC there will be 30-35 cent raises each year for four years. Not quite enough to keep up with inflation but, by golly, the current employees get a raise.

In DC there is a new two-tier provision similar to California. However there is a "snap-back" feature in DC. New hires will only have to wait six years to get to the top pay rate. During that time they will also get less for overtime and Sunday work.

"You're going to have people in there making $8 an hour on a Sunday working with people making $35 an hour", said one Giant worker. "It's going to be hard to motivate them."

Current employees health insurance deductible will double to $200, and for many, the maximum annual out-of-pocket health care costs will increase from $2,500 to $4,000. The companies will also contribute less to prescription drug costs.

New hires will suffer even more on health care. They will have to wait two years to get a plan with a 300 dollar deductible and higher prescription costs. Worst of all they will have to wait six years before they can get their families covered under this substandard plan.

The union reported that about 12,000 members attended and voted at ratification meetings. About 200 Giant workers voted no. Only a "handful" among Safeway members voted to reject. Does that mean they were happy with what they got?

First of all, we have to remember that the new hires, who take the brunt of the concessions, don’t vote. This allows boss and bureaucrat alike to cling to fictions like "no body took a wage cut." No body that is except our kids looking for work. No body except a bunch of unhappy campers, a future majority who may not be inclined to make sacrifices to defend the old-timers conditions next time around. Nor should the veterans forget that with two-tier they are now working with a big bulls-eye painted on their back, targeted for replacement with cheaper labor.

The lop-sided vote did not represent enthusiastic support. It reflected relief that they wouldn’t have to go out on strike for a California style "victory."

A few quotes from Washington Post coverage of worker reactions:

"California really put the scare in you," said Larry Bagby, 61, a meat cutter who has worked at Safeway for 41 years.

"It was a relief, especially after hearing what was going on out in California," said Michael McLain, a Silver Spring Giant employee who has been with the company 29 years. "We didn't know how things would go. We were a little apprehensive, but I feel real good."

Angel Veal, a cashier at the Safeway in Clinton for 13 years, said she considered the contract "one of the best" current workers have had in a while, she said she is worried about the new-worker concessions. "A new worker has to wait 24 months to get health care. That's absurd," she said. "We already go through so many people. They don't even put in two weeks' notice. They just walk off the job."

"I have bills," Woodbridge Safeway produce clerk Aaron Richards said with a shrug.

"We didn't lose, but I'd like to feel better," said Kevin Bell, a produce clerk at the Colesville Giant. "But at least I'm not on strike."

I suspect Brother Bell summarizes the prevailing sentiment among the Giant-Safeway workers. The only alternative they see to accepting this deal they wish they could feel better about is a strike like the one in California. Unlike Brother Dority they believe that was a disaster.

We should not rush to condemn the union ranks who see themselves in a lose-lose situation. But we can expect more from their leadership.

For example, we would appreciate some honesty—or at least stop insulting our intelligence.

The DC Metro Labor Council issued this flash bulletin:

SUPERMARKET WORKERS INK CONTRACT: Safeway and Giant workers unanimously approved a new 4-year contract Tuesday after weeks of tough negotiations and an extensive local support campaign that coordinated labor, community, religious and political support for protecting healthcare benefits.

"We couldn't have done it without our local labor movement and our tireless allies in the religious and neighborhood communities," said a tired but jubilant Jimmy Lowthers, UFCW 400 President. "Solidarity works!"

The contract largely preserves existing benefits for current workers and phases them in for new hires over a six-year period.

Metro Council President Jos Williams praised Local 400 for working closely with the Council and allies. "The new mobilization tools we've developed during this struggle will have a terrific long-term impact on the local labor movement's ability to support working families in the metro region," Williams said, citing METRO leafletings, store visits and the new Community Action Teams. "Other workers will be reaping the benefits of Local 400's campaign for years to come."

This sounds a bit like Howard Dean the night they counted the votes in Iowa.

Other workers will indeed be reaping what Local 400 leaders have sewn for years to come. But do they really want bragging rights for pioneering two-tier in their community? Is this what members can expect when "solidarity works?"

It might be too much to reasonably expect the Local 400 and Labor Council leaders to find some magic bullet to save the day. They must operate in today’s labor climate, facing an unfavorable relationship of class forces—not to mention the health care crisis.

But before we can figure out a way to fight back we must recognize we are in a fight, and know our enemies and friends. Imitating Orwell’s Ministry of Truth by proclaiming every set back to be a joyous victory is not helpful.

Unfortunately, most of today’s union leaders do not think in terms of class struggle. They would always prefer to get along with the boss. No one was more relieved than the Local 400 leaders when they found a way to avoid a strike and guarantee dues income for at least another four years.

Now they can focus on what they perceive to be the real enemies—George W Bush, Ralph Nader, and anybody else that stands between their newest good friend and the White House.

Class struggle is what initially built a once powerful labor movement in this country. The unions presented a vision that inspired workers to not only stand up to their boss but sometimes the cops and national guard as well. Nothing was ever given to us by the employers. What benefits and conditions we ever had were won in struggle.

Class collaboration in the workplace and in politics is what got the labor movement to where it is today—on the brink of extinction. Less than ten percent of the private sector remains unionized—and the numbers are still falling. Concession contracts have become the norm.

Workers don’t need a union to give things away. After the "victories" in California and Washington how many Wal-Mart workers will want to risk their job to try to join the UFCW? For that matter, why would the work force of an auto part supplier want to fight to get in to the union that negotiated the give back contract at American Axle?

If our labor movement is to survive, and accomplish its primary mission of advancing our living standards and working conditions, then we must return to that vision that prevailed during the times of genuine victories.

4/1/2004