Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Strike That's Struck a Chord Nationwide ; Los Angeles Grocery Walkout Taps into Labor Solidarity and Woes of a Shrinking Middle Class

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Strike That's Struck a Chord Nationwide ; Los Angeles Grocery Walkout Taps into Labor Solidarity and Woes of a Shrinking Middle Class

Article excerpt

Placard-toting demonstrators remain a common sight at supermarkets here as a strike and lockout of 70,000 southern California grocery workers begins its ninth week with no end in sight.

Management and unions are still hunkered down; negotiations could trickle into next year. And the fight has become emblematic of a larger national anxiety over tradeoffs between consumer prices and decent-paying jobs. On one level, it's a tussle between management - which says it must cut costs to compete with bulk discount houses - and workers who want to preserve health benefits. But there's also a more universal question, analysts say: As manufacturing jobs disappear here - and across the Midwest and South - what alternatives remain for the working middle class?

In Los Angeles, which has seen two exoduses of middle-class jobs since the 1970s - auto plants and aerospace - the shrinking of one more sector of middle-class employment has vast implications.

"The public support that has helped keep this strike going longer than most thought it would is the latest example of how corporate America is getting out of sync with working people," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor specialist at Cornell University. "They are standing up to say, 'Hey, wait a minute: This is against the public interest and it's not fair.' "

In one corner, she and others say, is management's self-interest and the consumer benefit of economies of scale. In another are retail workers demanding decent wages in grocery work - one of the last bastions of the service sector that doesn't require a college education.

Both sides are marshalling support in states and sectors anticipating similar conflicts: While management wants to cut health- insurance costs, unions say they're the last, key benefit allowing retail workers to keep their families out of poverty.

"The southern California grocery strike has huge, national implications both because of the large number of workers involved and because of the extreme demands that management is making on the unions," says Ruth Milkman, director of the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment. "It is a test of the waters ahead for concession bargaining nationwide in the new economy."

Los Angeles has wrestled with its shrinking middle class for decades. In the 1970s, auto plants moved away, devastating employment in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In the 1990s, 555,000 aerospace jobs were lost. Experts say that if the grocery workers lose this fight, the racially charged metropolis could slip further into an economically polarized dystopia.

The loss would also weaken negotiating positions for ongoing and imminent union fights in other states, from New York to Ohio to the South.

"If a perfectly healthy grocery management succeeds in eliminating the health plans and other benefits of 70,000, it is a very dangerous sign for the middle class in cities across America," says Kent Wong, analyst at the UCLA Labor Center. …

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