Supermarket Showdown

By Cooper, Marc | The Nation, January 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Supermarket Showdown


Cooper, Marc, The Nation


A joyless holiday season faces 70,000 unionized Southern and Central California supermarket workers who have been on strike or locked out since October 11. The strikers, with their lively picket lines and remarkable unity, have become a national symbol of labor's fight back against corporate grabs. But now things are taking a perilous turn.

Thousands of supporters and hundreds of national labor leaders, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, staged a solidarity march through Los Angeles during the week before Christmas. But as union support funds start to dry up, notices have gone out from the United Food and Commercial Workers warning striking members that they will soon have to pay their own costly health insurance premiums. Worse, a move in November by 8,000 Teamsters truckdrivers and warehouse workers--who struck against supermarket warehouses in an attempt to force the employers to settle--has failed. With the three corporate grocery giants--Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger--refusing to buckle, the Teamsters say they have no choice but to send their drivers back to work.

Under this mounting pressure, the UFCW went into a December 19 mediation and offered to give back some $350 million in healthcare costs. But the supermarket chains are still reportedly demanding a rollback three times larger, and they abruptly broke off negotiations until at least after New Year's.

Public support for the strikers remains high, with shoppers leaving the targeted markets nearly empty. But the owners seem willing to absorb significant short-term losses, on the order of $1 billion, in order to cut their long-term costs. They seek to chop the work force into two tiers, paying less to newly hired workers, and to limit owner payments into employee health plans.

Hopes for a settlement were briefly buoyed when Kroger agreed to a favorable contract with the UFCW in three Southern and Eastern states after a two-month strike. The refusal to settle in Southern California reinforces suspicions that it is Safeway, which operates Southern California's Von's and Pavilions stores, that is fueling owners' intransigence--that and the chains' palpable fear of growing competition from nonunion, price-cutting competitors like Wal-Mart. …

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