Thursday, November 8, 2012

UFCW Local 5 strikes Nob Hill and Raleys

by Richard Mellor

Northern California grocery workers, members of UFCW Local 5 working at  at Raley's and Nob Hill stores are on strike.  I have been on a couple of picket lines that last few days and it appears the Union leadership's strategy and tactics have not changed.  The picketers have been instructed not to impede scabs, either shoppers or scabbing co-workers.  The strikers must be polite and not engage or "harass" them I was told.

The workers are actually on strike in the sense that they are not at work but there is no real effort on the part of the Union leadership or the local Labor movement to shut down these operations. I am not familiar with all the details but from what I gathered talking to workers the issues are wages and benefits as usual.  The bosses are determined to lower wages further and eliminate benefits altogether over time.

Readers may remember the 2004 grocery workers strike down in Southern California. It was very successful in pretty much shutting down operations and the UFCW sent a lot of workers up north to man informational pickets calling for a boycott by shoppers up here. I was on those picket lines almost every day. I wold stop there for lunch at work and also after work. Some of us were also active in a solidarity group we formed to assist the rank and file in understanding what was going on and to try to help them counter the leadership's concessionary policies.  From the beginning the leadership's position was concessions.  This is the standard position of the entire leadership of organized Labor which has contributed to the drastic reduction in living standards and Union power in the workplace over the years.

In the 2004 strike as picketers up here urged shoppers to not go in, one shopper asked me who was stocking the shelves in there. "Aren't they in the same Union?" he asked me.  "They are, but a different local" I replied, and he says, "And you're asking me not to shop when their own brothers and sisters are working behind a picket line?"  I accepted he had a point, but he still should not cross. the UFCW here would not pull their members off the job as it would have been a contract violation and the Union hierarchy, gentlemen and women that they are would not violate an agreement with the employer.

That strike was eventually defeated although the Union heads often paint defeats as victories if they can end the dispute with slightly fewer concessions than the bosses' asked for.  But the present President of UFCW Local 5, Ron Lind was also in the forefront of that sellout.  In the heat of the dispute he announces in the press that the bosses were being too greedy, too damn unfair and aggressive, that unlike them, “We want to make changes with a scalpel, not a chain saw.”

Well that was reassuring------to the bosses of course.

The heads of organized Labor have only a defensive strategy, damage control is their position. They plead as Ron Lind did eight years ago for the bosses to just be a little nicer, a little less aggressive.  Union officials like Lind can afford to be patient.  The 2004 strike lasted five months during which officials still get to take home their $150,000 (and much more for some) paycheck. During strikes, all paid officials should be earning strike pay just like the folks on the line and no paid Union official should earn more than the average wage of the workers they represent.

One worker on the line told me today that the problem is that the boss isn't afraid of the Union and they "need to be a afraid of us."  He was right about that. The officialdom, as Lind did in 2004, let the boss know that concessions are OK, just the level of them is up for discussion. 
On the line today, as people walked past (the entrance is always kept free of picketers) some strikers would ask very nicely if the scab would consider shopping somewhere else as the company was trying to take away their benefits.

We got in to a discussion about the situation in the US.  One guy said it's not like the old days that people "don't care" any more. Another was arguing that most workers today don't like Unions at all. I explained that I had a different view.  When we ask people not to cross because the boss is taking away our benefits, many workers will say, "What benefits? I don't have any benefits."  This happened numerous times when I was on the lines in 2004.  Some young workers are working three jobs with one of them the benefit job.  A lot of workers feel, with some justification, that the Unions haven't been there for them and that they care only about their own members.  In the 2004 strike, and with most contract settlements, new hires get screwed as I mentioned in previous blog.  Not being hired yet they aren't able to vote on  a contract that will give them lower pay and worse benefits.

This causes a lot of hostility on the job and toward the Union on the part of those who were sacrificed and had no say in i; it weakens the Union. All of these things don't affect the officials though, they don't have to work under the conditions of the contracts they tell their members to accept and their wages and benefits aren't affected either.

The answer to winning over other workers and workers in the communities is not to confine our demands in any dispute simply to those issues that only affect the workers on strike.  To defeat this offensive of the corporations we have to build a wider movement and go on an offensive of our own. We demand what we and all workers need to live a decent and productive life, we reject what high paid officials and the bosses tell us is not realistic. If we listened to them we'd never have won anything including the right to a Union. If a worker considering crossing a picket line sees the power of organized Labor being brought to the table and thousands of workers out there fighting for jobs, health care, increased benefits etc. it will become a pole of attraction.  Power is what attracts, not the passive pleading approach of our leaders today.

I went to Local 5's website to see what sort of inspirational stuff was up there. What were the demands of the negotiators.  I wanted to see what the Union was fighting for. This is the closest I got on the front page:

"Collective bargaining, or negotiating a contract that covers all facets of work under which the local's members are employed, is not easy business. Particularly in the worst economy since the great depression, coming to agreement with employers who want to slash wages and benefits, can only succeed with the full participation of the membership. To that end the union has set up a dedicated email address ( where members can provide ideas and proposals for contract talks."

Not very inspiring. It would appear that it's business as usual trying to come to an agreement with the boss that wants to "slash wages and benefits".  Coming to an agreement on how much to slash can only be done with the participation of the membership, says the Union.  Even better, winning higher wages and more  benefits, a shorter workweek which would create more jobs for those young people that might cross our lines is also only possible with the participation of the membership, but not the participation that the present leaders of our union want, a passive acceptance of the status quo.  We must reject the idea that there is a bad economy, this is not so, there is money everywhere. When we want to participate to fight back, this participation is frowned upon and suppressed.

Many workers I have met on picket lines in the last few years are there for the first time as due to the refusal of our leadership to organize a fightback, strikes have declined drastically.  The officialdom call workers off the job without any real preparation for winning or serious involvement in the process on their part.

We are in a struggle on two fronts really; one is against the boss which every worker understands in our gut.  The other is against the concessionary policies of our present leadership from the highest levels on down. This is more difficult as anyone that stands against these policies will be labelled a trouble maker and divisive. Going on the offensive demanding jobs, increased benefits like vacations and sick leave and such and for increased wages and an end to two tier systems bringing all up to the higher tier not to mention pensions we can live on.  This is what will inspire our own members.  reaching out to our communities and the low waged linking up their struggles with ours in a generalized movement against the corporate offensive, this is what will win.

In the general strike in Oakland last year when 30,000 occupied 14th and Broadway and then shut down the docks for three shifts, the cops refused to interfere. They didn't interfere because the crowd was working people, women with children, the disabled, black, white, Asians Latinos, everyone. Thousands of workers and our families.  This is power, not indiscriminate individual vandalism and smashing windows. This is reactionary self indulgence and is not the method of the working class. This doesn't mean the cops won''t wade in, but it reduces the chances in the beginning anyway.

The present leadership of our Unions are wedded to the Team Concept, the view that the boss and workers are on the same team and that we have to help them compete against their rivals for profits and market dominance.  This is the the basis for their betrayals and concessionary policies. Their obscene salaries and perks are secondary features. They will not take the road that will lead to victories because it brings them in to conflict with the bosses and they have built a relationship with them based on the above policies and Labor peace.

We have to build opposition caucuses and groupings in our locals that openly campaign against these policies and offer us an alternative program and strategy, a direct action fight to win strategy that built our Unions int he first place. Building oppositions along these lines that can challenge the present leadership will be a pole of attraction to thousands of rank and file workers who have given up on our Unions and be the springboard to the communities, youth and all those suffering the consequences of the market and the policies of the 1%.

After the 2004 strike Ron Lind said: ”We could have gone for a bigger wage increase, but it would have had to come out of our health-care benefits plan…….” I'm sure not "his" health care plan. This reveals the limits of Ron Lind's thinking.  For him, and all the top leaders, what is the point of going after gains.  What we gain on the one hand we'll lose on the other is his excuse for giving away hard won gains.  We'd have to rob peter to pay Paul. The idea that our gains should come from the bosses pocket doesn't enter in to it. How can it? The boss is a team member.

The boss of what was then Albertsons made his position on the 2004 strike very clear to his buddies at the top.

"[The strike] was very costly, but [the settlement] was one of the best investments our company ever made"
Business Week 1-4-05.

They know what they're doing.

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