Last week, Kroger, the supermarket giant, announced that it would close two of its grocery stores in Long Beach, California, after the city council passed an ordinance mandating that grocery stores pay their workers an extra $4 an hour for the next 120 days or until the city terminates the measure.
Kroger ended its $2-an-hour hazard-pay policy in May of 2020, preferring to award workers an occasional bonus in the months since, a strategy also adopted by Amazon and Walmart. There have been no moves to reimplement the raises, even as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents some 1.3 million grocery store workers, says 134 members have died of coronavirus, with thousands more infected.
The Long Beach measure, which was passed unanimously on January 19, 2021, is a means of ensuring extra pay for frontline workers who risk exposure to coronavirus as the pandemic persists across the United States. It applies to grocery stores with more than 300 employees nationwide and more than fifteen per store in the city. It is not the only such ordinance: Seattle, Los Angeles, and Montebello have passed similar laws.
“As a result of the City of Long Beach’s decision to pass an ordinance mandating Extra Pay for grocery workers, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close long-struggling store locations in Long Beach,” a Kroger spokesperson told NPR. “We are truly saddened that our associates and customers will ultimately be the real victims of the city council’s actions.” The company, which owns thousands of stores across the country, says the two affected Long Beach stores will close in April.
The episode is just the latest example of capital on the march, with the businesses that have won big during the pandemic more confident than ever, and willing to do exactly as they please.
Amazon, perhaps the biggest winner of the pandemic, is behaving similarly. The company recently announced plans to close DCH1, one of its warehouses in Chicago. Workers were informed on January 25 that they could either find a new job or accept graveyard shifts at a new warehouse in the city. The 1:20 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. shifts are known as “megacycle” and, as DCH1 workers quickly pointed out, are unworkable for people who care for children or elders.
What makes this particularly curious is that DCH1 is one of the most well-organized Amazon warehouses in the country. Its workers have long staged walkouts, petitions, and other collective actions. It’s hard to avoid speculating on whether the company is closing such a well-organized facility as part of its current efforts to clamp down on worker organizing, but it is safe to say that the “take it or leave it” attitude toward workers who labored through the pandemic and have not received hazard pay in many months is reflective of a company that is doing whatever it wants, regardless of the human costs.
Kroger, like Amazon, does not want to be subject to any constraints as to how it makes its profits. The idea of answering to anyone, be it workers or a city council, is anathema for these companies.
Capital strikes like these are a regular occurrence, and the threat they pose is part of the environment in which policymakers act. As Peter Frase once put it, “just as workers can shut down production by refusing to come to work, capital can shut down the economy by refusing to invest and hire workers.” The threat of a capital strike limit both the actions of policymakers and the demands of workers on the shopfloor.
While there are plenty of historical examples of capital strikes, a more recent case of such a maneuver came last year, when Uber and Lyft threatened to cease operations in California — one of the companies’ largest markets — if the state enforced Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), a law that mandates the “gig workers” using these companies’ platforms be recategorized as employees, with the protections and benefits that status guarantees. In making these threats, the so-called gig companies emphasized how many drivers would lose their incomes should they close up shop. The sleight of hand was clear: rather than blaming Lyft and Uber for their loss of income, drivers should blame the state. Ultimately, the courts granted the companies a stay on implementing the law, and not long after, a majority of California voters approved Proposition 22, the gig company–penned ballot measure that exempts these companies from AB5.
This is what happens when companies have enough money and political connections to stop engaging in social niceties. Kroger can “afford” to pay a few of its workers an extra $4 an hour, but that’s not the point — it doesn’t want to, so it won’t. “Mask off,” as the saying goes.