The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 37           October 27, 2003  
Supermarket workers
in S. California walk off job
(front page)
LOS ANGELES—Tens of thousands of workers at supermarkets in Southern California walked off the job October 11 after union negotiations with three major store chains were suspended in the face of the employers’ intransigence.

“The contract the companies are pushing is not fair—the whole package stinks,” said Albert Rodriguez, a produce worker at Ralphs. Workers there had been locked out when they reported for morning shift.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which represents some 70,000 workers in southern California, struck the Vons supermarket chain. The other two chains, Albertsons and Ralphs, immediately closed their doors, saying they viewed a strike against Vons as a strike against all three.

The companies have been preparing for a strike for months, recruiting potential strikebreakers and training store managers to drive delivery trucks across picket lines. “When I came in to report to my 8:00 a.m. shift, I was told I was locked out,” said Oscar García, 19, who has worked at Ralphs for two months. “This is my first strike. The companies are trying to take away everything the union has fought for.”

Earlier in the week, UFCW members had voted by a 97 percent margin to reject the takeback demands of the three chains, which together operate about 900 stores from San Diego to Santa Barbara and control 60 percent of the grocery store market. Hundreds of workers left the strike authorization meetings with armfuls of picket signs. The UFCW contract with the three supermarket chains expired October 6. Strikers told the Militant that some Vons stores were forced to close their doors immediately after the strike began.

“I’m 100 percent for the union,” said John Sandford, interviewed at the October 8 strike vote meeting at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. “They want to cut our pay, eliminate some overtime, take away holidays, make us pay through the nose on medical—in short, they want to phase out the union.” Like other new hires, Sandford, who works at a Vons in Inglewood, makes close to minimum wage. His primary concern is losing his health benefits.

The employers offer no wage increase until October 2005, permanent two-tier wages and benefits, drastic cuts in health and pension benefits, and union-weakening changes in work rules. The contract includes language that would allow outsourcing to nonunion companies.

The union says the owners are trying to foist $1 billion a year in medical-care costs onto the backs of the union members, including roughly $1,300 a year per worker in monthly premiums, plus higher deductibles and co-payments.

On October 10 the supermarket chains took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times claiming that a full-time food clerk can earn “as much as $17.90 per hour on regular work days, $26.85 per hour on Sundays and $53.70 per hour when they work on contractually paid holidays.” The ad doesn’t mention the fact that about 70 percent work part-time, and that baggers make $7.40 an hour.

According to the Times, profits have dropped at both Kroger and Safeway. Albertsons’s profits are up, but are “largely driven by closing stores and exiting unprofitable markets.” Competition from retailers such as Wal-Mart is fueling the profit crisis at the supermarket chains. Prices for much of their produce and packaged food are 10 to 20 percent below what the national chains charge. They are also nonunion. Wal-Mart says it plans to open 40 Supercenters in California in the coming years.

In a July newsletter, Safeway warned: “Each new [rival] store or an expanded food offering has the potential to take away grocery business from our stores, which means fewer hours and jobs for our employees. To ignore or further widen the cost gap with these competitors would be irresponsible.”

But many UFCW members reject these arguments. “These companies are making money. They just want to make more,” said Tibor Sziklay, who works at an Albertson’s in Hungtington Beach

Grocery workers are appealing to store customers to honor their picket lines and to buy at other unionized food stores. One of their bilingual leaflets says: “Attention Shoppers! A major strike may soon disrupt your family shopping… Don’t Cross the Picket Line!”  
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