Grocery Sacked

Photo by Nick SchouAided by Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration is currently pushing for a $2.36 trillion spending package that threatens to keep the nation in trillions of dollars of debt for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger is declaring victory after voters supported his plan to borrow $15 billion to pay off the state's massive deficit.

The message: live for today, and screw the future. Let our kids—or better yet, their kids—fix the mess we've created.

Now labor unions are following in the Republicans' footsteps. After a five-month strike, Local 324 of the United Food N Commercial Workers (UFCW) agreed to a contract that, for the first time in the union's history, establishes a two-tier system of wages and benefits for its members. Under the new contract, future UFCW members will receive much lower pay and benefits than current members.

The history of the decline of the American labor movement—from almost 40 percent of U.S. workers in the 1950s to less than 10 percent now—is a history of exactly such compromises. But UFCW officials are declaring the contract one of the greatest union victories ever.

“[This was] one of the most successful strikes in history,” declared UFCW International Union President Doug Dority in a Feb. 27 press released posted on the union's website. “The men and women on the picket lines are genuine heroes. . . . They have sent a message to employers everywhere that attempts to eliminate health-care benefits will come at a high price.”

In a March 4 speech at UC Irvine, John Perez, political director for UFCW Local 324, argued that the final agreement—supported by 86 percent of union members—was far superior to the employers' initial offer. Although UFCW ultimately lost a wage increase for current members that was included in the initial offer, Perez claimed that under the original deal, new employees would receive no company contributions to their health-care coverage and would have a much smaller pension package.

“When you look at the original offer and the one we finally agreed to, it was a dramatic improvement,” Perez said. “Under the original offer, new employees would have had to sign over virtually their entire paycheck in order to receive health coverage—or receive no benefits at all. But the final package protects new workers by ensuring that the employer will contribute to their health-care benefits and pension plan.”

Perez also claimed that during the strike, his union signed four contracts across the country, all of which provided for increased company contributions to employee health care. “Since the strike ended, we signed three more contracts—in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky,” he said. “This new contract is the reference point by which all other contracts will be measured. Now the employers understand the tenacity of our membership.”

But didn't UFCW give away too much in agreeing to a two-tier system that divides the union's membership?

“The two-tier system was on the table at the beginning of the strike,” Perez said. “In the real world, given the dynamics of the industry, the final package was the best we could do. You always have to make compromises in negotiations. But contracts are always temporary. When we go back to the [negotiating] table in three years, the industry may go back to a single-tier system.”

Why would employers ever agree to reverse the tremendous victory they achieved in convincing the union to divide its own membership?

Because, Perez argued, the two-tier system isn't any better for employers than employees. “The two-tier system is a short-sighted approach by employers that will reduce the quality of their workers,” Perez said. “New employees will realize they're not getting the same pay or benefits as other workers and will start putting pressure on the companies to eliminate the two-tier system. But the union will also have to orient those workers toward the union to make that happen. In the years ahead, that's going to be our biggest challenge.”

Whether the union meets that challenge depends on activists such as Matthew Hart, a union strike captain and 13-year employee of a Vons store in Yorba Linda. “Before the strike, there was just a handful of workers who were militantly pro-union,” Hart said. “Now almost all the workers identify themselves as union members—not just as grocery workers. People also used to think of their health benefits as gifts from the company. The strike showed how false that was because workers were locked out of their jobs and had to depend on the union to survive. This strike has made the union much stronger than we ever were before.”

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