Extend the Strike Nationwide!

UFCW Strike: A Battle for All Labor

20,000 Rally in Support of Grocery Workers

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 819, 6 February 2004.

LOS ANGELES, February 3—The over 70,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) in Southern California who have been on strike or locked out for four months received a giant boost when some 20,000 workers turned out for a strike support march and rally in Inglewood on January 31. Called by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the rally was titled "Holding the Line for America's Health Care" and included contingents from over 20 unions, some of which had several locals participating. The demonstration came in the wake of the January 20 announcement by the AFL-CIO that "the labor movement will extend nationwide its efforts" in solidarity with the UFCW strike, including an international effort to raise desperately needed funds for the striking workers. This could also break the near-total blackout of the strike in the bourgeois media outside California.

The many unions that participated in the rally included mainly Latino laborers from LIUNA; HERE Local 11 hotel and restaurant workers, whose contract with 16 hotels expires in April; SEIU Local 1877 "Justice for Janitors"; SEIU Local 399 home health care workers; county workers from SEIU Local 660; L.A. county firefighters; the California Nurses Association; NALC postal workers; IBEW electrical workers and UNITE garment workers. A contingent of over 100 International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13 members—including several longshoremen from Portland, Oregon—marched in the rally behind a drill team and a banner declaring, "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!"

What is most importantly posed for the UFCW to succeed in its struggle against the supermarket bosses is the national extension of the strike. UFCW Local 655, representing more than 10,000 workers in St. Louis, Missouri, struck 97 stores and won a contract guaranteeing that the companies will continue to pay full health care premiums for members and their families. But the general strategy of the UFCW bureaucrats has been to limit the strike to the Southern California area. UFCW workers who struck in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky were sent back to work. Some 15,000 UFCW workers in Arizona and 9,000 in Indiana are working under an indefinite contract extension. Meanwhile, contract negotiations just began in Seattle and Chicago. What should happen is a solid strike by all UFCW workers against every Vons/ Safeway, Albertsons and Ralphs/Krogers in California and across the country.

The national extension of the strike must be accompanied by the crucial task of shutting down the distribution centers—nobody shops at empty stores. It was a real betrayal by the UFCW bureaucracy that they ordered that picket lines be taken down at Ralphs, which locked out its workers. And it was an even greater betrayal when on December 19 the UFCW and Teamsters tops ordered that the UFCW picket lines at the nine distribution centers that service the struck Southern California supermarkets be taken down. A militant refusal by the Teamsters and UFCW ranks to abide by this, in particular at the Vons distribution center in El Monte, forced the bureaucrats to temporarily keep up picketing at the four Vons distribution centers. Today, UFCW strikers are defiantly picketing the El Monte distribution center.

After taking down the Ralphs lines, the UFCW leadership sent picketers from Southern California to the north to man "informational picket lines" at Safeway stores, pushing a halfhearted "shop out" as a diversion from extending the strike. While the UFCW and AFL-CIO tops have simply been paying lip service to the "shop out," the workers leafleting both Safeway and Albertsons in the Bay Area are actually serious about implementing this tactic. We call on everyone to boycott Safeway (and its subsidiary, Pak'N Save) and Albertsons as an elementary act of solidarity with the UFCW strikers, whether there are pickets at the stores or not.

The supermarket workers are facing an enemy that wants blood. Demanding a full $1 billion in heath care concessions, the supermarket bosses rejected an offer by the UFCW conceding up to $500 million. They want nothing less than to crush the UFCW as a union capable of defending its members. They want to treat their workers like notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart treats its workers—low pay, token benefits, intimidation and abuse of immigrant workers, victimization of union activists, etc. A UFCW victory would be a powerful springboard to organizing Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the U.S.

The viciousness of the grocery bosses is revealed by the scabs they have enlisted. On January 17, two women strikers at an Albertsons in Orange County were attacked by a scab, who punched one of them repeatedly in the face and broke the 52-year-old woman's nose. In the next few days, there were a number of similar incidents particularly targeting women strikers. UFCW Local 324 president Greg M. Conger said, "The scabs who work at these supermarkets are, by their very nature, desperate people of suspicious moral character. Some of them have a history of violence and theft." Indeed, Ralphs and other grocery giants have engaged professional scab-recruiting outfits like Personnel Support Systems Inc., which is owned by one Clifford L. Nuckols, a low-life who was sued for swindling the scabs he recruited.

The UFCW strike is the front line of a fight that needs to be waged by all of labor in defense of health care benefits and against the undermining of unions through the imposition of multi-tier divisions within the workforce. And the rest of labor must back them all the way. Trade unions located where the UFCW strike is happening must officially mobilize their members to help build mass picket lines that no one dares to cross. Every worker —unionized and non-unionized—black people, immigrants and all the oppressed have a stake in this strike.

Mobilize Labor Power to Win!

Despite the treachery of the labor tops—the failure to pull out UFCW workers at the struck chains nationally, the taking down of lines at Ralphs, the dismantling of lines at the distribution centers—the strike has been seriously hurting the grocery bosses; they have lost an estimated $1 billion and Smith Barney is now recommending that its clients sell their Safeway stock. However, the strike is also taking a toll on the strikers—health care benefits have expired for many UFCW workers, and many have also fallen behind on their car and housing payments while struggling to put food on the table for themselves and their families. Despite these hardships, the overwhelming majority of UFCW strikers have demonstrated their determination to fight and win. At the January 31 rally, a UFCW Local 770 worker carried a placard reading, "I'm Tired and I'm Broke but I'll Never Be ‘Broken'."

In the AFL-CIO fund-raising campaign on behalf of the strike, $600,000 has been donated. ILWU locals in the L.A. area—13, 63 and 94—have pledged over $1 million for medical insurance for the strikers and their families. At a January 12 "stop work" meeting, ILWU Local 13 members voted unanimously to assess themselves $25 per month to assist the grocery workers; Local 13 has also issued 100 temporary casual cards to allow UFCW strikers to get work on the docks through the union hiring hall. The Harry Bridges Institute, named after the historic leader of the ILWU, has launched an Adopt-A-UFCW-Family program to help the neediest UFCW families pay their rent, electricity and heating bills. At the January 31 rally, a steamfitters official said building trades District 36 had given $70,000 to the grocery workers, while the UTLA teachers union has raised $37,000 thus far, and the SEIU International has pledged $100,000. Checks have also come in from trade unions in Canada, Ireland, Japan, Germany, Denmark and other countries.

All militant workers must do everything in their power to throw their unions' support behind the UFCW strike—through financial donations and especially through building effective, mass picket lines. This is also an opportunity for students and young activists to show their solidarity with the strikers by donating money and helping to man the picket lines. The Spartacus Youth Clubs, youth groups of the Marxist Spartacist League, have launched a campaign in solidarity with the UFCW strike (see article on page 7).

The AFL-CIO ought to be doing everything they can to ensure that every striking UFCW worker can pay their rent, utilities and food bills. Such a campaign must be carried out as an auxiliary to effective strike action, especially through nationwide extension of the strike. But the aim of the labor tops is to use the much-needed financial support as a substitute for the class-struggle tactics necessary to win the strike. The AFL-CIO is engaging in an impotent "corporate campaign," appealing to the capitalist bosses to act more "humanely" toward the UFCW strikers. Fat chance! The bankruptcy of this tactic is demonstrated by the fact that when the AFL-CIO organized a rally on behalf of the strike in New York City, they organized it on...Wall Street! Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer and one of the key figures running the national campaign on behalf of the UFCW strike, is a former president of the coal miners union who rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy by taming the militant tradition of the miners, pushing impotent schemes to pressure shareholders and civil disobedience as a substitute for effective, militant strike action.

For a Workers Government!

The UFCW strike takes place in the post-September 11 period in which the U.S. bourgeoisie, having invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, is also taking aim at the working class and minorities at home. Here in Los Angeles in recent weeks the ruling-class offensive has been demonstrated not only in the attacks on the UFCW. On January 21, more than 400 LAPD officers and FBI agents carried out a racist police occupation of the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, arresting 41 people and terrorizing the residents in the name of fighting "gangs." Meanwhile, the County of Los Angeles is dismantling piece by piece the King/ Drew Medical Center, a vital if insufficient lifeline for the impoverished black and Latino masses of South Central L.A.

As we have repeatedly said, the imperialists' phony "war on terror" targets immigrants, blacks and labor. This was confirmed in December when the union-busting CEO of Safeway, Steve Burd, was appointed by Tom Ridge to the Private Sector Senior Advisory Committee to Homeland Security. A January 27 "Grocery Workers Justice Pilgrimage" to give petitions to Burd at his home, organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, was subjected to police intimidation. Two officers from the Contra Costa County sheriff's homeland security detail showed up at a nearby union hall in Martinez demanding information on the march, and a police mobilization prevented the marchers from entering the gated community where Burd lives. The same two cops then carried out undercover surveillance at a January 24 union rally in San Francisco (San Francisco Chronicle, 28 January).

The January 31 mass labor demonstration in Inglewood took place a day after a mistrial was declared for a second time in the case of the racist Inglewood cop whose beating of black teenager Donovan Jackson in 2002 was captured on videotape. That video showed what happens all the time in racist capitalist America. The courts, cops and prisons are not neutral; they are instruments of capitalist repression, the core of the capitalist state. The cops who carry out racist terror against blacks and immigrants are the same cops who arrest striking workers. To fight for the rights of labor and the oppressed requires an understanding of the nature of the capitalist state as an apparatus of repression to defend the interests of the capitalist class against working people and the oppressed.

The unions are disarmed by the trade- union misleaders' acceptance of the capitalist system of profit, their acceptance of the labor laws issued by the capitalist government and capitalist courts, and by a program of class collaboration with the capitalists, expressed chiefly through political support for the Democratic Party.

The money that the unions have donated in support of the strike is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions they waste every year trying to get Democrats elected into office. At the January 31 rally, Democrat and California District Attorney Bill Lockyer spoke from the podium and was widely applauded when he announced that he was charging the supermarket chains with violating "antitrust" laws. Lockyer represents the capitalist state, the very forces that would go after the strikers if, for example, the UFCW and Teamsters defied the bosses' laws and injunctions and shut down the distribution centers.

The starting point for any union leadership worth its salt must be the understanding that capitalist society is divided between two antagonistic classes: workers, who produce all material value in society and are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive, and the capitalist class, which owns the means of production and extracts its profits from the exploitation of the working class. The interests of these two classes cannot be reconciled. As Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon wrote at the time of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike in the Organizer, the daily strike bulletin put out by the union:

"Local 574 doesn't take any stock in the theory that capital and labor are brothers, and that the way for little brother labor to get a few crumbs is to be a good boy and appeal to the good nature of big brother capital. We see the issue between capital and labor as an unceasing struggle between the class of exploited workers and the class of exploiting parasites. It is a war. What decides in this war, as in all others, is power. The exploiters are organized to grind us down into the dust. We must organize our class to fight back."

— "The Secret of Local 574," 18 August 1934, reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator (1958)

The unions need a class-struggle leadership based on the political independence of the labor movement from the bosses' state and political parties. It is in the crucible of class struggle that such a leadership will be forged, as part of the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party to lead the working masses to power. The workers produce the wealth of society—they should run it!

The struggle of this determined, militant union, with its heavily immigrant and minority components, expresses the aspirations of what working people and the masses of the oppressed and victimized in this country are fighting for: decent wages, a decent job and health care for themselves and their families. This is a major class battle for workers in America, and every worker has a stake in the outcome of this strike.

The capitalist system means immiseration, unemployment, union-busting, racial oppression and war. Militant workers must understand that they have to get at the root cause of their oppression; that, to be liberated from capitalist enslavement, their struggles must be directed toward the building of a workers party to lead the workers in the fight for a workers government. As Karl Marx wrote in his 1865 work Wages, Price and Profit, in their everyday conflict with capital, workers

"ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!'"

Victory to the UFCW strike!

ICL Home Page