by Jim Bywater
More than 75,000 workers in Southern California, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, have been on strike or locked out since 11 October 2003 in what has become an important test of union strength and unity. The strikers are fighting the grocers' attempt to impose a two-tier wage and benefits scale and the stocking of store shelves by vendors, as well as a 50-75% cut in health coverage. Many employers across the US are reducing health provision or forcing workers to pay higher costs and Southern Californian grocery chains are no exception, despite operating profits rising more than 10 times faster than their contributions to worker health care.
The strikers have significant community support, cross-union solidarity, and the AFL-CIO's creation of a national strike fund to help the union pay $10 million per week in strike benefits, but the workers are facing the deep pockets of Vons/Pavilions, Albertsons, and Ralphs. The latter two chains have locked their workers out in support of Vons.
Groups such as the Jewish Labor Committee and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance have organised actions to get members of the community onto the picket line supporting workers. Initially, many UCLA students were crossing the picket lines, but student-labour groups soon organised against this and began to join the picket lines.
The Teamsters union's 7,000 drivers and warehouse workers have began honouring UFCW pickets at 10 distribution centers. This has caused a huge decrease in the number of items available to customers, and some stores having empty shelves.
Negotiations between UFCW officials and the three giant grocery chains allied against the union broke down five days after they resumed on 2 December. The workers' battle cry is "one day longer", a pledge to outlast the corporations that seem to have their heels dug in despite huge financial losses directly related to the strike. Albertsons recently announced a 51 percent drop in profits for the third quarter, with sales at its 259 stores down $132 million.