October 22nd, 2003


The supermarket strikes

Today I listened in on a conversation between a hairdresser and her customer. I was getting my own hair done at the time. The customer was a woman who had worked for Vons for 21 years and is currently on the picket line.

The press on this strike has emphasized the plight of the grocery chains, and I can see that they are up against some competition that threatens their ability to compete. I have heard quotations from union members that were simple lines like "They are using this as a red flag. They've used these arguments before. We aren't going for it".

What I'd heard left me in a position of generally supporting the unions because of my basic belief that our workers need to earn a living wage, and the supermarket industry is one of the last to offer such a thing. I am horrified to think that too may go the way of the hand-made hamburger.

The woman speaking today, settled into the cosmetologist chair, having her hair colored, had a good attitude against what seemed to me considerable odds. She said that the union had anticipated a strike for some time and members had paid into a fund to pay the workers who would be on the picket line. Each gets $200 a week. Their own money.

She explained the health care issue. Right now they have full benefits, dental, vision, health, and they only pay copayments, no premiums. The supermarkets want to take away vision and dental and to pay only half of the premiums for health. The union, understanding the gravity of the situation, the combination of health care costs and undercutting by non-union markets like Costco and Wal-Mart, offered an alternative: work toward the supermarket's offer gradually. That is, accept the cutting of the dental this time, vision next, gradually take on more of the health insurance premiums. But the supermarkets would not even discuss this alternative.

Similarly with retirement. Now the supermarkets match funds employees put into 401K plans. They want to stop the matching. OK, say the unions, we can accept that. But it isn't enough. The supermarkets want to offer no retirement plan at all, to freeze everything where it is, no increases, no additions.

I am sure I did not get the details exactly right, but what I did get is that the unions have in fact made concessions, continue to be willing to make concessions, but the next action is in the supermarkets' court. It is, according to their reps, to their advantage to stretch it out, make it hard on the striking workers, even though this strategy is sure to lose them customers over the long run. So they won't be re-opening talks for a while yet.

Regardless of the details, although it is not black and white, I hold out hope for the union win. The stores need to know that some of us, many of us, will pay a little more for food to assure that grocery stores do not go the way of fast food chains.