National Sections of the L5I:

Solidarity needed in supermarket strike

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For nearly four months some 70,000 workers employed by four major supermarket chains across southern and central California have been engaged in a battle that will shape the terrain of struggle between US unions and corporate bosses for the course of the next decade.

The immediate issue at the heart of this increasingly bitter battle is health insurance provision by big employers in a country where there is no national health service and an estimated 43 million people are without any medical coverage at all.

According to left-leaning academic Ruth Milkman the strike "has huge national implications . . . it is a test of the waters ahead for concession bargaining nationwide in the 'new' economy".

The strike action kicked off after bosses at Vons and Pavilion refused to drop demands for workers to shell out more for healthcare insurance. If the bosses get their way employees would be paying $95 or the equivalent eight hours of their weekly pay on health insurance premia at the end of a three-year contract.

The attack on health and pension benefits is hardly unique to the supermarket sector in the US. But managements have claimed that they must extract concessions from the unions to remain competitive with the likes of Wal-Mart and CostCo. Wal-Mart has become the symbol of a new style of capitalism in the retail sector. A viciously anti-union employer, its workers make a third less an hour than their sisters and brothers in the strikebound California supermarkets. Wal-Mart staff also pay significantly higher health insurance premia.

The chain has also witnessed numerous raids by immigration cops on its stores in the mid-west and southern states, where the company had hired so-called "illegal" immigrant workers for wages below the legal minimum.

The UFCW has garnered substantial support from supermarket shoppers, many of whom are boycotting the stores that remain open with skeleton crews of scab labour. Aside from an immediate identification with friends and neighbours, many workers and middle class people are angered by the attacks on workplace benefits in a country where the upward redistribution of wealth has again gathered pace under the Bush presidency.

In the words of Miguel Contreras, president of the Los Angeles Central Labor Council, "The public has resonated with this strike because these are people they see day to day [but] it's also a fight about what kind of society we all want to live in."

The dispute has even attracted support from the more radical elements of the music industry with members of bands such as Audioslave, Slipknot and the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing a benefit gig in Los Angeles on 20 December.

Crucially, there has been the support from other sections of organised workers, including the still powerful Teamsters. Though the call came late in the day, the character of the dispute changed dramatically when on 24 November Teamster officials instructed members to honour UFCW picket lines. Initially, this move effectively reduced the delivery of supplies to the scab stores to a comparative trickle. All told, some 8,000 lorry drivers are refusing to deliver to distribution warehouses and 860 stores.

The International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) locals have donated $155,000 (c £90,000) to support the striking and locked-out workers. Meanwhile in San Francisco the city's Labor Council has organised fund-raising and demonstrations outside local Safeway's outlets where UFCW members are employed under a different contract.

Partly in response to the dispute, the state Attorney General's office in California has undertaken an investigation into allegations of anti-trust violations by the key corporate players and has pledged to examine their "collective bargaining tactics".

Estimates have suggested that the supermarket chains are enduring losses equivalent to £23m a week, though top management appears to think it a price worth paying if the eventual outcome breaks the UFCW's strength in the industry as a whole.

This is a dispute that can certainly be won. Predictably, however, there has been a widening gap between the rhetoric of union officials stressing the historic importance of this battle and their practice on the ground. There has been the notable failure to respond with organised picket line defence in response to a fascist provocation outside an Albertson's supermarket in Orange County where a UFCW member suffered a concussion at the hands of Nazi-style thugs swinging baseball bats.

The UFCW tops also did a deal with Kroger bosses that ended a separate dispute involving 3,300 members employed in other Kroger-controlled chains in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. As in California, the key issue in that strike, which began on 13 October, was health insurance. The failure to link these struggles has relieved the pressure that at least one set of supermarket bosses was undeniably feeling and could still snatch defeat from the jaws of what would prove an important victory that could in turn remoralise a labour movement whose leadership has cowered in abject disarray in the wake of 9/11.

Worse still, perhaps, was the decision (since reversed) to remove pickets when negotiations restarted at the beginning of 2004.

As January drew to a close there was no still sign of a climbdown by bosses in California but the workers' resolve also remains strong. Given the level of mass activism selling a shoddy deal will prove a difficult task for UFCW full-timers.

Ultimately, this brave industrial struggle must be transformed into a political one that sees the US trade unions pressed to fight for universal healthcare, free of charge and at the point of need, as a key plank in the programme of a party that marks a once and for all a break from the capitalist duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. After all, one can find many an endorsement for John Kerry from UFCW officials on his campaign's website, but not a word about the California strikes.

In the meantime, though, there is much to be won in the supermarket.