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Grocery Workers Stand Up

In 2003, California grocery workers launched the longest grocery workers’ strike in history — but failed to win their demands. Now, having authorized a strike in late June, they’re coming back to finish the job.

NAACP members participating in the NAACP's 102nd annual national convention join labor march and a rally in front of the Ralphs grocery store on July 27, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

At the end of June, grocery workers in Southern California represented by UFCW Local 770 voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike against supermarket behemoths Albertsons and Ralphs. Workers have been negotiating a new contract since March, but the companies’ offers have so far been pitiable. The new contracts that employees have been offered include a less than 1 percent wage increase as well as cuts to their health benefits. And despite gangbuster profits, grocery store employees’ wages haven’t kept up with Los Angeles’s rapidly rising cost of living. (The median rent in Los Angeles is $2,500 a month.) By voting to authorize a strike, union members “stated resoundingly,” said UFCW Local 770 president John Grant, “that we will not stand by while these wealthy corporations . . .  force these hard-working grocery clerks to struggle in order to put food on the table and pay rent.”

This isn’t the first time that Southern California grocery workers have gone on strike. In October 2003, grocery workers from San Diego to San Luis Obispo initiated the longest and largest grocery workers’ strike in US history, which ended up lasting more than four months. The strike, however, was terribly unsuccessful: Even though the combined efforts of workers and consumers caused grocery companies to collectively lose over $1.5 billion, many workers crossed picket lines and prevented stores from being closed. UFCW leadership didn’t allow locals to coordinate their strikes, community support was tepid, and workers were completely unsure about what to do during the strike. After the UFCW’s strike fund ran dry, Albertsons and Ralphs crammed a contract with reduced wages and benefits down workers’ throats.

Yet the strike became the longest in UFCW history and helped to foster lasting worker solidarity. UFCW spokesman Mike Shimpock, commenting on the outcome of the 2003 strikes, said that “if we had not gone on strike and been locked out in 2003–04, the assault on grocery workers would have been ferocious.” It doesn’t matter whether the strike was successful, he said, because “the act of standing up for ourselves showed we had the will that’s helped protect us during the years.”

That grocery workers in Southern California are fighting the exact same fight as workers sixteen years before them is depressingly indicative of how feeble grocery workers’ labor power has become. In Shelved, a report on the wages and working conditions of California’s grocery workers, UC Berkeley’s Saru Jayaraman writes that even though “California grocery store workers have more than double the unionization rate of general merchandise store workers,” from 2000 to 2010, “the unionization rate among grocery store workers declined by almost one quarter.” Falling union participation rates also, and unsurprisingly, coincide with falling wages; over that same decade of union decline, grocery workers’ wages fell more than 12 percent.

The benefits of belonging to a union cannot be overstated; especially so for workers like meat cutters and janitors who perform poorly paid, low-skill jobs. Even as both union and non-union grocery workers’ wages have declined, “union grocery store workers still earn about three dollars more per hour than non-union grocery store workers and are slightly more likely to work full time hours,” Jayaraman reports. Workers who belong to a union also more often “report earning wages above the poverty line and receiving promotions than non-unionized workers,” as well as “having paid sick days at almost double the rate of non-unionized workers.”

Still, both union and non-union workers say that more than anything else they’re concerned about their terribly low wages, which are often less than $15 an hour. To afford the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in California, a full-time grocery worker would have to earn more than $54,000 a year, yet “less than 1 [percent] of all food retail workers in California earn this much.”

Unions have a role to play, too, in helping to end the virulent racial discrimination that pervades the food retail industry. “Race,” Jayaraman writes, “is strongly related to California [grocery] workers’ earnings,” such that “people of color were three times more likely than white workers to report earning subminimum wages, and nearly twice as likely to earn an income below the poverty level.” Interestingly enough, Jayaraman looked at how unionization rates among workers of color and immigrants figured in wage differences, finding that “having a union makes a tremendous difference in reducing the percentage of people of color [and immigrants] who earn below a subminimum wage level, and in minimizing racial differences generally.”

If Southern California grocery workers — indeed, all workers — are to successfully obtain higher wages, substantive health benefits, and a greater say in their workplaces, unions will need a strategy that goes beyond the shop floor. As the Market Basket strike showed, it’s possible for grocery workers to extract powerful concessions from their employers by collectively withdrawing their labor. But if Southern California grocery workers want to avoid a replay of their failed 2003 strike, they’ll have to enlist the support of the community and unite the entire workforce to prevent scabbing. Moreover, a political struggle for broader pro-worker legislation could draw in other workers as allies. Workers should also pressure the state to discipline employers, thus creating a more favorable organizing environment.

Whether one is a Southern California grocery worker, a cashier at Forever 21, or the Chuck E. Cheese mascot, all workers stand to benefit from joining a union. Unions can use their power to push not just for more immediate changes in the workplace, but also more permanent, widespread legislative changes that affect a wider swath of workers. The public, too, have a responsibility to boycott companies that prevent their workers from unionizing, or those with workers on strike. In the struggle for workers’ rights, nobody is an island.

So there’s no doubt that Southern California grocery workers can win their fight, but they shouldn’t have to face it alone.