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The Week In Review, Sunday, December 21, 2003
No Gettysburg in California
The very first (4/2/2000) original content article we posted on kclabor.org was about a big fight at Associated Wholesale Grocers warehouse operations here in Kansas City. This is what we said:
"From the 1940s through the 70s the Kansas City grocery industry was dominated by three national chains—Safeway, A&P, Kroger—and one locally owned, Milgram. The store employees were all unionized in the Meat Cutters and Retail Clerks. Suppliers were virtually 100 percent organized by Teamsters. Grocery industry jobs were good jobs with decent pay, benefits, and working conditions.
"Twenty years ago that started changing. The national chains sold off their holdings to local investors, as did the Milgram family. The new owners went all-out to bust the unions with considerable success. There are few stores that are "wall-to-wall" union any more. Many grocery employees are part-time with few or no benefits. Wages have stagnated or even shrunk.
"Now the grocery bosses are out to try to finish off another bastion of grocery unionism—the 1200 Teamsters members at Associated Wholesale Grocers. AWG is a consortium owned by local chains such as Price Chopper, Sun Fresh, Hen House, and Thriftway. They demanded that their workers give up millions of dollars in concessions. Failing to accomplish this in contract negotiations the grocery bosses are essentially trying to fire all their union workers and start out fresh with a new workforce through a legal fiction of contracting out to another employer.
"The 1200 union men and women at AWG deserve the support of all working people in their fight to save decent jobs.
"If you are a regular shopper at Price Chopper, Sun Fresh, Hen House, or Thriftway, tell them you'll be shopping elsewhere until they stop their union busting at AWG.
"In the meantime you can shop at HyVee or IGA grocery stores."
The AWG Teamsters ultimately won their particular fight against being downgraded to "independent contractors." But the general trend we described in Kansas City has continued to march on with little resistance in most parts of the country.
As labor costs in the retail grocery industry were driven down by the traditional chains a new major player, WalMart, muscled up to the trough— "union free" from Day One. The other bosses quickly exploited this threat from new competition to demand even more concessions from unionized grocery workers. There were recently big struggles in St Louis and Charleston, West Virginia, and a mammoth one continues in southern California. In all these fights health care benefits were the central issue. In California giving up stocking work to vendors—now a common practice across the country—was also a major bone of contention.
A lot of labor people were hoping that California would be the Gettysburg of the long struggle in grocery, with workers at least holding the line, breaking the momentum of the employer offensive.
There were some hopeful signs. Hundreds of thousands of working class shoppers changed their shopping habits to avoid crossing the picket lines. Across the country other unions recognized this as a fight to hold the line on health care. A lot of money—some of it coming from members of this list through the link on kclabor.org —contributed to the striker’s relief fund.
But the companies were also determined. They were prepared to sacrifice profits in the short term to restructure their labor costs. They retained union-busting lawyers, hired professional strike breakers, and brought in management personnel from around the country.
This struggle of 71,000 California grocery workers continues—but clearly with major setbacks. The UFCW called the company negotiators in Friday to present major concessions in the union’s bargaining demands. The bosses simply said "not enough" and made no counter offers. The UFCW had already announced plans to withdraw pickets at Teamster organized warehouses and at the chains where the dispute had been a lockout instead of a strike. Strike pay from the union has been reduced. These actions do not bode well for the future of grocery workers in California, and elsewhere.
There has been a lot of discussion and debate about the strategy and tactics of the UFCW and AFL-CIO leadership in the California struggle. No doubt many things could have been done much better. It is in order to undertake a healthy criticism and self-criticism.
But, unfortunately, choosing the brightest tactical approach does not in itself guarantee victory. I recall another UFCW battle—at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, 1986-87—where the local workers did just about everything right that you could think of. They made all their decisions after wide ranging debates at well-attended mass membership meetings. They won the active support of almost the whole town of Austin. They carried out mass picket lines to keep out the initial scabs and got massive help from other unions in a battle against the National Guard. They set up soup kitchens with food contributed by solidarity committees in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. They launched a regionally successful consumer boycott, and organized a corporate campaign to embarrass the company.
But, in the end, these brave workers were defeated by an overwhelming relationship of forces of the multi-plant company, the state—and their own international union leadership.
What the American working class needs to address today involves far more than just tactics. We have to reverse this overall relationship of forces. Isolated local struggles have to be incorporated into nationwide, sometimes even global, actions. We won’t win by playing under the rules of Taft-Hartley. We can’t rely on major party politicians. We can’t count on health care and adequate pensions that are employer based.
If the Union forces of the 1860s had limited their fight like the union forces of today are restricting ours, we would have never seen Gettysburg—much less Appomattox.
Some Good News From California
Under the agreement, CNA will be the lead decision maker on legislation, regulation and other public policy matters affecting RNs and RN professional practice working with SEIU RNs. SEIU will be the lead decision maker in those arenas for other healthcare employees.
SEIU will work with CNA to support implementation and enforcement of the ratios as RN ratios. CNA and SEIU will fight against the displacement of other healthcare workers which increases the work load of RNs and jeopardizes patient care.
Looking For Last Minute Gifts?
And, whether you be Christian, Jew, Muslim, other, or none of the above—happy holiday wishes from kclabor.org.
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