Victory to the Transit, Supermarket Workers!

L.A. Strikers Defiant

Defeat Union-Busting Attacks! No to Binding Arbitration!

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 813, 7 November 2003.

LOS ANGELES, November 4—As nearly 80,000 workers in Southern California go into their fourth week on the picket lines, the strikes by supermarket workers and L.A. transit workers are reaching a critical stage. These strikes have the potential to rock all of Southern California with class struggle and to point the way forward for workers around the country. But to do so, they must be strengthened and extended.

Some 70,000 supermarket workers at 859 stores represented by seven United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals have been out since October 12, fighting huge takebacks demanded by the Vons (owned by Safeway), Ralphs (owned by Kroger Co.) and Albertsons supermarket chains. On October 14, the third-largest transit system in the country was brought to a standstill by a strike of 2,000 mechanics in the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU); 6,000 other transit workers—bus and train drivers organized in the United Transportation Union (UTU) and clerical, custodial and tool room workers organized by the Transportation Communications International Union (TCU)—whose contracts have also expired are honoring the ATU picket lines. Additionally, tens of thousands of L.A. County workers organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660 have been working without a contract since September 30. On October 28, they held a 2,000-strong rally against a county proposal to freeze wages and to shift health care costs onto the workers, declaring, “We’re drawing the line!”

With L.A. convulsed by major strikes, now is the time for the county workers to walk out, displaying a united proletarian fist against the bosses and underlining that it is labor that makes L.A. run.

But in their efforts to appease the Democratic Party city bosses, the union tops are undermining rather than extending the strikes. On Friday, the ATU is scheduled to vote on a rotten “last, best and final offer” from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). This insulting offer should be resoundingly rejected, as the ATU leadership is urging. But the answer is not to push for binding arbitration, as ATU president Neil Silver is advocating, which would place the fate of the union in the hands of the capitalist government’s “mediators.” Many ATU members on the picket lines are rightly worried about the likely decision of an arbitrator, and some have commented that it’s ridiculous for anybody to go back to work while all three transit unions are without a contract. The ATU might take a lesson from the sanitation workers who withdrew their petition to the National Labor Relations Board and instead went out on strike just after the ATU and UFCW went out, winning Teamsters representation at Norcal Waste Services in South Bay.

What’s needed is for the UTU and TCU to go out on strike, to stop the MTA’s scab operations with mass, militant picket lines and to shut down all mass transit in L.A. All transit workers in the L.A. metro area should be organized in one industrial union! Strike together, go back together!

In the case of the supermarket workers, it has been clear from the beginning that the key to victory lies in joint action by UFCW and Teamsters members to shut down the distribution centers. There is widespread sentiment among the ranks of both unions to do precisely that. Instead, the UFCW and Teamsters leaders have dismantled those picket lines already in place at two distribution centers—picket lines that were being honored by the Teamsters. This was done at the request of the Teamsters misleaders, who claimed that their members had to work in order to keep their health benefits.

This is a betrayal, not only of the UFCW workers but also the Teamsters. It is reported that the grocery bosses are planning to replace Teamsters truck drivers with non-union “independent” truckers when their contract expires in two years. The dismantling of the picket lines was met with disappointment by many UFCW strikers, with one picket captain at Vons emphasizing to Workers Vanguard salesmen how this weakened the strike as a whole.

On October 31, UFCW Local 770 president Rick Icaza grandly announced that the UFCW locals were taking down the pickets at the 300 Ralphs markets in California as a gesture of thanks to the consumers who have been shopping at other markets since the strike began and with the aim, according to the Los Angeles Times (1 November), of “focusing pressure on the Vons and Albertsons chains.” Public relations doesn’t win strikes. Shutting down the flow of money to the bosses does. While the UFCW leadership is trying to play one supermarket conglomerate against the other, the supermarket bosses are standing solid against the workers: the Times article spoke of the “possibility that Ralphs might share with Albertsons and Safeway any windfall from being the only one of the chains without pickets.”

The UFCW has reportedly threatened to extend the strike against Vons to Safeway stores nationally. If the UFCW is serious about taking this strike nationally, then the key to winning is extending it in California—which means maintaining and reinforcing all the existing picket lines, including against Ralphs. Even now, thousands more UFCW members are on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, while 7,000 members of UFCW Local 700 in Indianapolis are taking a strike vote tomorrow and 15,000 more in Arizona are working without a contract. All these workers should be out now in coordinated strike action against all the supermarket bosses.

A class-struggle strategy to win the transit and supermarket strikes is counterposed to the bureaucrats’ policy of abiding by what’s “legal” in the eyes of the bourgeois courts and requires a struggle against the bureaucrats’ strategy of class collaboration. It is reported that the ATU’s suicidal offer to submit to binding arbitration was strongly pushed by Miguel Contreras, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, and liberal Democratic city councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who was elected through the backing of labor and who sits on the board of the labor-hating MTA. This dynamic duo, one a pro-Democratic Party labor bureaucrat and the other a “pro-labor” Democrat, have come out to help the bourgeoisie defeat the strike. In fact, Contreras calls for an end to the ATU strike because it hurts “low-paid members of our (other) unions that are having to walk to work every day” (Los Angeles Times, 30 October). This is merely an echo of the bosses’ vile propaganda against the transit strikers.

The employers, their Democratic and Republican politicians, their courts and other government agencies are all enemies of the working people. While some Democrats have paid lip service to the plight of the downtrodden supermarket workers, Democratic mayor Hahn is now threatening to reopen the city workers contracts in order to push through new concessions. Against the united front of the capitalists, the workers need class unity in struggle. This poses the need for a class-struggle leadership in the unions based on political independence from the bosses’ parties and the bosses’ state. Break with the Democrats! For a fighting workers party! Victory to the transit and supermarket strikes!

Bust the Union-Busters!

While the capitalist media nationwide—both print and television—have instituted a virtual blackout, the L.A. strikes have struck a chord among workers throughout Southern California. On October 20, workers from several unions marched and rallied with striking UFCW members at Ralphs in the Crenshaw area, among them Verizon workers from the CWA, AFSCME members, Justice for Janitors (SEIU Local 1877), H.E.R.E. hotel and restaurant workers Local 11 and SEIU Local 99, which represents workers at the L.A. Unified School District. UPS and other unionized drivers regularly honk in support of the mechanics’ pickets, and consumers in their great majority have honored the grocery store picket lines. Despite the gridlock and difficulties caused by the strikes, there is widespread sympathy for the workers’ fight to defend their health care benefits.

The L.A. strikes should be an inspiration to transit workers in Chicago, who have been working without a contract for over four years, and in New York City, where the bureaucrats knifed a potential strike and pushed through a sellout last December, hiding behind the state’s anti-strike Taylor Law. With unemployment on the rise and the economy in shambles, the class battles in L.A. show workers across the country that they can fight back.

Threatening the union’s very existence, the supermarket bosses are demanding a two-tier wage system with significantly lower pay and benefits for new hires, the subcontracting out of union labor and the right to open non-union stores in “non-union” areas. According to the president of UFCW Local 770, the bosses are also trying to cut health benefits by 50 percent. The MTA’s demands include a cap on its contributions to the ATU’s health care plan, leaving workers to pay for increases in rapidly rising health care costs, and a freeze on MTA funding of the retirees’ health care plan at the current level, which is already well below what’s needed to fund the plan. In announcing its “last, best and final offer” on October 27 after declaring negotiations to be at an “impasse,” the MTA, as the Los Angeles Times (28 October) noted, was “laying the legal groundwork for hiring replacement workers”—i.e., scabs. Although this won’t be easy because of the skilled nature of the mechanics, it is a clear threat to bust ATU Local 1277 and potentially the other two transit unions!

Numerous scab operations are being launched against the transit unions: Metrolink rail, which transports suburban commuters, is running buses (under the name Transit Systems) to take passengers from the transit hub to various areas of the city. In addition, several scab outfits are operating from “Prime Time” vans, run by an ex-MTA boss, to buses run by MV Transportation and Ortley. Now, Teamsters-organized drivers for First Transit, who went out on strike one day after the MTA mechanics, have accepted a three-year contract and are expected to resume service on 12 MTA “contract lines” this week. First Transit drivers should stay out until all MTA workers are back on the job!

On October 22, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) community group started to assist the MTA’s scab operations. While the BRU claims to be on the side of the workers, it is organizing a “Peoples’ Bus Emergency Transit Service,” which can only weaken the impact of the strike. To win over the poor, Latino and black masses who depend on mass transit as allies, the transit unions must fight for free mass transit and increased bus and rail service.

The current L.A. strikes, where tens of thousands of workers are fighting for decent living conditions for themselves and their families, point to the potential for welding the social power of labor to the anger of the ghettos and barrios. If extended, these strikes could provide a platform for organizing the hundreds of thousands of unorganized, heavily immigrant workers in the L.A. area. But this means that the unions must champion defense of immigrant rights. Last week, the Feds carried out widely publicized raids at Wal-Mart stores in 21 states, arresting over 250 “illegal” immigrant workers (see article this page). In fact, the supermarket bosses falsely justify their demand for takebacks by claiming that they have to compete with non-union Wal-Mart “superstores.” The labor movement, including the UFCW, must take up the defense of these Wal-Mart workers, demanding their immediate freedom and opposing all deportations while launching a fight to organize Wal-Mart. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Break with the Democrats!

The bureaucrats’ impotent class-collaborationist policy is exemplified by an “investor conference call” organized on October 30 by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney with the JP Morgan and Smith Barney Citigroup investment firms. Sweeney tried to convince investors that the supermarket bosses’ hard line against labor is bad for long-term profits. Wall Street didn’t buy it. The capitalists know, as every worker should know, that the interests of the workers and the bosses are diametrically opposed. For profits to go up, the capitalists must increase the rate of exploitation, driving down the living standards of the working masses. The trade-union bureaucrats, who only try to negotiate “fair” terms of exploitation, promote the lie that the interests of labor and capital can be reconciled.

A clear example of the labor tops’ fealty to the capitalist system is their attitude toward cops and security guards. The October 28 SEIU rally included hundreds of security guards organized by the SEIU, probation officers organized by AFSCME and other “unionized” cops and sheriffs. This is disgusting. These guards and officers are not workers; they are the core elements of the capitalist state apparatus. Their job is to enforce the bosses’ law and order. This means scabherding, repressing social struggle and terrorizing the impoverished ghettos and barrios. Several grocery store strikers have been arrested on the picket lines. And Albertsons is seeking a court injunction to take down the picket lines at its stores. Who would enforce the injunction? Cops and security guards! That the trade-union bureaucrats organize the armed thugs of the capitalist state into the unions reflects the bureaucrats’ commitment to defend this system of exploitation. Cops, security guards, probation officers out of the unions!

County Federation of Labor head Contreras is considered the leader of the L.A. labor movement. But he spends most union resources on mobilizing the ranks to elect capitalist politicians (or keeping hated ones like Gray Davis in office), not on carrying out the class struggle desperately needed to organize the heavily immigrant working class. In the month-long transit strike in 2000, which stayed solid on the picket lines and beat back a union-busting plan to divide the MTA into “regional transit zones,” Contreras called in Jesse Jackson Sr. to defuse the workers’ militancy. Jackson preached “reconcilation” with the Democratic Party politicians who run the city and dominate the MTA board and helped ram through a contract settlement that made concessions to the MTA.

Strike support rallies organized by the UFCW have featured Jackson and other Democratic Party politicians. Jackson et al. paint themselves as friends of the workers but do so only to put Democrats in office so that they can get their chance to screw the workers by administering the capitalist system. Jackson openly seeks to direct labor and anti-racist struggle into an effort to get the Democrats into the White House in 2004.

The Democrats run this system in partnership with the Republicans. As these strikes pose the burning need for a working-class offensive against the bosses to fight for the interest of workers and all the oppressed, the first precondition is independence from all capitalist parties. What working people need is a new leadership in the unions that fights for their interests, a leadership forged in class struggle, against the pro-capitalist program of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. This is part of the fight to build a workers party that leads the struggle not just for the immediate interests of the workers but for a socialist revolution to establish a workers government. Those who labor must rule! Victory to the grocery and transit strikers!

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