Photo by Nick SchouExcept for several hundred striking grocery workers and a few dozen police officers, the parking lot of the Vons supermarket near Long Beach's Traffic Circle was empty on Jan. 28. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union protest featured music, speeches and chants of "One Day Longer, One Day Stronger!" Nonetheless, more than a dozen strikers and union officials prostrated themselves on the pavement in front of the store entrance—fists clenched in the air—until police carted them off to jail.
No shopper attempted to cross the picket line. And unless you were a striker or a cop, you probably haven't heard about the protest until now.
The next day's Los Angeles Times carried nary a word about the demonstration. Instead, Times editors that day ran a joint editorial by Brian P. Simpson, an assistant professor at San Diego's National University, and Elan Journo, a writer with the rabidly anti-union Ayn Rand Institute.
Under the headline "Union Packs Unfair Punch in Grocery Strike," Journo and Simpson blamed the strike on a U.S. labor law that allows workers the right to strike against their employers. "Why can't the stores fire the strikers and end the dispute?" the article asked. "Because they are forced by law to deal with the union. That coercive power of the union is a gross violation of the employers' and workers' rights."
The law in question, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, allows U.S. workers the right to elect leaders and collectively negotiate for salaries and other working benefits—like weekends, vacations, sick pay and medical care—without being fired by their employers. According to Journo and Simpson, UFCW's almost-four-month-old strike to preserve health-care benefits illustrates why the right to organize should be abolished.
"The union can demand anything, however outrageous, and the stores are obliged by law to negotiate in good faith," Journo and Simpson said. "The law violates the rights of workers, too. Seventy thousand UFCW members who work in grocery stores in Southern California are on strike, but some—about 5 percent—did not vote in favor of the strike."
A 95 percent vote doesn't prove the strike was the wisest thing to do, but it does suggest the union's decision was democratic. Yet to Journo and Simpson, the real issue isn't a worker's democratic right to organize; it's the right of the grocery chains—and all employers—to unilaterally dictate the terms of employment.
"The power of unions to coerce unearned benefits for their workers while crippling employers is unjust," they argued. "Repealing the [NLRA] should be a first step toward restoring the principle of individual rights as the proper basis for interaction among people."
The Times has not confined its pro-management stance to the op-ed pages, however. Two days before the Long Beach protest, the paper ran two articles about the strike on the front page of the business section.
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The most prominent was "Grocery Workers' Leader Paid Like a Corporate Boss," a 1,300-word piece blasting Ricardo Icaza, the president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, for earning what a grocery-store executive would consider chump change: $273,404 per year. Columnist Michael Hiltzik provides the evidence himself when he acknowledges that Safeway Inc. president Steven Burd enjoys a $1.2 million annual salary and has "raked in millions more from his sale of Safeway shares" in the past few years.
Times writers Melinda Fulmer and Kathy Kristof provided more details about Burd's outlandish salary in a smaller story that ran alongside Hiltzik's story, "Safeway Rewards 11 Top Execs." Their article reveals that 11 Safeway executives beneath Burd amassed million-dollar salaries and acquired millions more in stock options over the past few years. Neither story mentioned that meeting the UFCW's demands would have cost the grocery chains (Safeway Inc., the parent company of Vons, and Kroger Co., the parent company of Albertsons and Ralphs) an estimated $330 million over three years. Neither story questioned the wisdom of well-paid executives who provoked a strike that has already cost the companies more than $2 billion in lost revenue.
Instead, Hiltzik described the companies' refusal to negotiate with the union this way: "It is plain that over the last 15 weeks, and dating back to the start of negotiations with the grocery chains in August, the UFCW leadership has been woefully outmaneuvered by [management]. . . . As a result, rather than maintaining or improving their economic status, which was the goal of earlier contract negotiations, the workers are struggling to avoid being ejected from the middle class altogether."
The Times is correct in concluding that the strikers are "struggling to avoid being ejected from the middle class." That's precisely what made the Long Beach protest so newsworthy and why the Times—which gets much of its advertising from Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons—should be ashamed for failing to consider it newsworthy enough to report.