In a first in US Labor history, nearly 100,000 grocery workers are on strike or locked out in California, St. Louis, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, demanding a halt to the ever-increasing bosses’ assault on one of the working class’ most essential needs: health care. At issue in each of these disputes has been not only the companies’ attempts to force a larger share of the rapidly rising cost of health care onto their workers, but also the “Wal-Mart-ization” of the American work force as a whole. It all comes down to two opposing interests – the profits of the capitalist health care giants and corporations, and the very health and well-being of millions of workers.
Under the heavy skies of recession, these multi-billion dollar companies want to make the workers pay the full bill for the economic downturn. In order to maintain their huge profits, the capitalists are more than willing to put the physical health of the working class to the ax. This is a threat that the Labor Movement cannot tolerate, despite the braking action of their own leadership and the pernicious influence of the Democratic Party.
Of the nearly 100,000 United Food and Commercial Workers members on strike or locked out, 71,000 are out in Southern California. Until October 31, 10,000 walked the line in St. Louis, and another 3,300 in the Appalachian region of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. More than 1,000 grocery stores have been struck in the three areas, 859 of which are in California alone. Von’s, Ralph’s, Pavillion and Albertson’s workers are on strike and locked out in California; Kroger workers in Appalachia; and in St. Louis, Schnuck’s, Dierberg’s and Shop ‘n’ Save stores were being picketed.
These strikes were entirely brought on by the companies’ absolute refusal to seriously attempt to reach a compromise on wage, health and pension issues. The employers have demanded all or nothing, despite their own huge profits and ridiculous salaries for top executives. For example, the profits of the big three grocers in southern California were 91 percent higher in 2003 than just four years ago, and the top 15 bosses of these companies earned a combined $70 million last year. Safeway, the parent company of both Ralph’s and Kroger’s, when asked whether or not they would be forced to accede to the workers’ demands, said openly that they planned to save over $130 million over the next three years on health care expenses. They calculate that they can save more in the long run than the strike will cost them - this is the real face of capitalism when it comes to making a decision between corporate profits and workers’ health.
The strike wave began with local 655 in St. Louis, Missouri voting 4,252 to 1,670 in a dawn meeting in favor of striking on October 7th. On the 10th, the 91,000 UFCW members in southern California voted 90 percent to strike, and 3,300 more grocery workers in the Appalachian region followed three days later. In each area, the employers have had to import out-of-state scabs to replace union workers on strike. The socialist writer Jack London, in his poem “The Scab” said of these people nearly 100 years ago: “where men have hearts, these creatures have a tumor of rotten principles.” These words still ring true today! These scabs, coming from out of state to steal the jobs of others, will soon find themselves on the other side. Hopefully it will provide a lesson to them on the power of working class unity!
There has been a tremendous amount of community solidarity with the grocery workers in the form of rallies, solidarity pickets, and an active and solid boycott of the struck chains - after all, the majority of the “community” is made up of millions of other workers facing the same issues and attacks from the bosses. In every region where the workers are on strike, they have received solidarity and support daily from the working class communities.
On October 16 in California, there was a Labor rally of 700 in support of the strikers, including delegations from the SEIU and Teamsters in Los Angeles. There were also rallies in La Habra and Venice. Picketing workers in St. Louis literally amassed piles of donated food, drinks, and even customers and union members bringing them hot pizzas in the cold weather. The Fire Fighters, Auto Workers, Sheet Metal Workers and Teamsters especially have been doing their utmost to support their brothers and sisters in the UFCW. Even the St. Louis police department has refused to cross the line and has refrained from harassing the pickets! October 16th also saw a support rally of several hundred in Kiener Plaza in St. Louis.
The rank and file of the AFL-CIO has played a tremendous role in the strike, not only out of basic Labor solidarity but also because of the acuteness of the health care issue in the Labor Movement. The rank and file has instinctively attempted to broaden this strike and support it with the utmost measures, but the bureaucracy has actively held the scale of the strike back. What could have easily transformed into a truly national strike has instead been isolated to three regions of the UFCW. There has been no attempt to shut down the stores, and the bureaucracy conceived the idea of simply plead with customers not cross the picket lines.
Although it would be a grave mistake to needlessly antagonize the local communities, attempts by the grocery workers to blockade the parking lots would have met with community support if local campaigns had been conducted beforehand. Local 655 in St. Louis, although not blocking entrances, issued statements to the press expressing “no ill will” to elderly and disabled customers and food pantry workers who continued to shop at struck stores out of a lack of alternatives. Measures such as that alongside blockades could greatly strengthen the strike as well as prevent the isolation of the strikers from the rest of the community.
Despite the lack of a blockade, stores in southern California, St. Louis and Appalachia all grudgingly estimate that they are only doing only 20 percent of business they would have normally. This is especially pronounced at stores in working class neighborhoods. As a picketer at a store in a working class area of St. Louis pointed out to the author of this article, nine out of ten cars parked in that store’s lot belonged to scabs!
The trade union bureaucracy, especially at the strike’s center in California, has taken what could be a victory for the workers and undermined it instead – almost certainly at the behest of their Democratic Party allies. Despite the tremendous participation of the rank and file of the AFL-CIO in supporting the strike, their leadership has done the utmost to contain and soften it. They could easily have linked up the grocery workers’ dispute with another important strike going on in the Los Angeles area with 2,200 maintenance workers of the Amalgamated Transit Union shutting down the public bus system - again, over health care.
In St. Louis, the leadership of local 655 put the contract back to a vote after the intervention of Federal mediators. 4,174 to 965 voted to accept the re-negotiated contract. The grocery workers there have won on the issue of health care, with the elimination of the proposed $200-400 deductibles, but their wages will not hold up against inflation over the next three years. In southern California, the union’s leadership has removed all pickets from Ralph’s, despite the fact that its workers are still locked out! In a press release, a UFCW spokesman said in relation to the removal of pickets at Ralph’s that: “The public has endured enough. Between the MTA transit strike in Los Angeles and the supermarket strike and lockout – not to mention the horrific tragedy of the Southern California wildfires – the people need some good news for a change.” But if Ralph’s workers are still locked out (which has very little to do with wildfires tragedy by the way), why would the leadership remove the pickets from the chain? The answer most likely has to do with the influence of the Democratic Party over the trade union bureaucracy. Rather than offend or confront their Democratic “allies”, the union’s leadership have opted to weaken the strike instead. Such is the fruit of the AFL-CIO alliance with the Democrats! Once again, we have been provided with a living lesson on the necessity for a real mass party of Labor and class independence!
The supermarket chains have attempted to justify their assault on wages and health care by citing competition from Wal-Mart, the United State’s largest retailer and its worst union buster. Although it is an absolute fact that non-union Wal-Mart is rapidly expanding across the country, selling everything from groceries to shotguns, and now even selling gasoline and changing oil, the big grocer’s justification is absolutely self-serving and ridiculous. Of the big three supermarket chains in southern California, only a quarter of stores face competition from Wal-Mart in their areas. Not only that, but all three of these big supermarket chains’ profits more than exceeded Wal-Mart’s in the Fortune 500 group of companies. These companies are not facing extinction by Wal-Mart, they are simply using it as an excuse for the extinction of their workers’ health coverage! They are very interested in the “Wal-Mart-ization” of their own workforce.
This is a frightening concept, and one that the working class must fight against with all its might. Just to cite a few statistics; Wal-Mart employees are not only some of the least-paid members of the US work force, but they receive probably the worst health care coverage; part-time workers at Wal-Mart must wait two years before they can get health benefits, and full time workers have to wait 6 months; health deductibles can reach as high as $1,000 per person, which is three times the average; Wal-Mart refuses to cover flu shots, eye exams, chiropractic therapy and child vaccinations for its employees. Last but not least, Wal-Mart does not pay for treatment of any health conditions that an employee may have when they are first hired. So, Wal-Mart employees effectively have little or no health insurance. This is the future for the American working class if the bosses have their way!
In the richest country on earth, 45 million are without health care coverage, and millions more only have access to the most basic care. Despite being by far the most expensive as well as one of the most advanced health care systems in the world, health care in the US provides some of the least services to the people. While the HMO giants and pharmaceutical companies rake in billions of dollars every year, those who do have insurance must pay exorbitant rates for their health plans and prescriptions. For example, the grocery workers in St. Louis are now expected to pay $75 for a 90 day supply of prescription drugs, whereas the company wanted to charge them $175! Wal-Mart or other minimum-wage employees normally pay even more.
The “right” of these health and pharmaceutical giants to pitilessly exploit the very health of the working class is protected by the Federal government. Now, as the economic stagnation enters its fourth year, these massive corporations have jacked up their prices to maintain their bottom line. The effect on working people has been disastrous. As the health giants raise their price tags, employers subscribing to their HMOs are passing off the increased costs to the workers by raising their monthly premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Despite being able in the past to guarantee their members decent benefits, the trade unions are now being told by the employers that they must pay more out of pocket. And this at a time of unprecedented profits for the HMOs! Those who say there is no money to provide universal health care are the same ones who benefit from a system in which millions labor for peanuts while a handful at the top pocket millions.
The unprecedented fight of the UFCW grocery workers is not only an absolute necessity, it is a sign of things to come. The bosses’ attempts to make the workers and trade unions pay the full bill for the health care and economic crisis will not be taken lying down. This is the future offered to the coming generations of workers under capitalism. Capitalism will, of course, guarantee the right to receive medical care – but it will also guarantee the right to make health care simply unaffordable for millions of people! The issue of health care, just like war, recession and poverty is something that cannot be solved under the current system. A socialist alternative is needed!
In order to halt the bosses’ assault on our health care, the Labor Movement must break decisively with the parties of the bosses. The Democrats just as much as the Republicans are backed by the health care corporations and pharmaceuticals giants. After all, Joe Liebermann is not called “the Senator from Aetna” for nothing! These parties, throughout their history, in the state legislatures, both houses of Congress and in the White House have consistently defended the rights of these modern day vampires to drain the health of the working class. When have the Democrats ever punished a corporation for having poor or zero health coverage? How many CEOs of HMOs are behind bars for mass extortion? The party that has the audacity to call itself the “party of working families” does not utter a word or raise a finger when the children of workers cannot get vaccinations. So why does the AFL-CIO give them millions upon millions of workers’ money every election year?
We need a genuine party of Labor, based on the trade unions and armed with a program of socialist demands in power if all can ever have full access to quality medical care. We need a nationalized health system, providing complete care to everyone from the cradle to the grave. Working people’s health before corporate profits! Nationalize the HMOs and the pharmaceutical companies that strip the working class of its very health in the name of profit. But the first step in making these demands a reality has to be the creation of a mass party of Labor, based on the unions and armed with a program that defends the workers genuine interests, with health care in the first place. The Democrats cannot and will never genuinely fight for such a program, which would mean an assault on the capitalist system itself. All that the Democratic Party is good for has been illustrated in this and dozens of other articles. The current labor leadership will never sacrifice their comfy positions and the perks they get from selling out the workers in the interests of the Democrats - they have got to go as well! Labor, break with the Democrats!
The entire Labor Movement must unite in solidarity with their brothers and sisters of the UFCW! The demand for decent health coverage is only the beginning. Workers around the country, unionized and non-unionized need to unite to fight against the bosses’ plans to strip us of our basic rights - the right to a decent job with full benefits; the right to health care; the right to universal education for our children; the right to unionize without fear of losing our jobs.