The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 70 (Spring 2004).

Lessons of the California Supermarket Strike

As we go to press, the strike of supermarket workers in Southern California has just ended, after 141 days. A contract agreement was reached between leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) and the Safeway, Kroger and Albertsons companies. The contract was ratified at the end of February by the hard-pressed rank and file.

Contract terms are reported to include piddling lump-sum payments instead of wage increases for current workers. Contributions to health care benefits by the companies will be capped. Even worse is the growth of a two-tier system under which new hires (who of course will not be voting) will earn even less in wages and benefits.

These terms are a pretty accurate reflection of how the union leadership conducted the strike. The union, through the ranks’ willingness to stay out and inflict severe losses on the companies ($2.1 billion by one estimate), was able to blunt the threat of further health cuts and even total defeat through mass firings and decertification – the fate of the 1981 air traffic controllers strike to which this one had been compared. But the ranks, after months of hardship, will now return to work under worse wage and benefit conditions.

Last October supermarket workers in Southern California launched the largest strike by far in the country since the September 11 attacks, with 70,000 workers hitting the bricks. This is the most important strike in the U.S. since the UPS walkout in 1997.

The strikers were mostly part-time workers, making mostly under $20,000 a year; not surprisingly, the people who fill these slots are largely oppressed workers, including Blacks, Latinos, women and immigrants. Their struggle to defend their health-care benefits and stop devastating wage cuts for new hires struck a chord with the working-class population of southern California. When the strike began, very few were crossing picket lines to shop at Vons and Pavilion (owned by Safeway), Ralphs (owned by Kroger) or Albertsons.

But the bureaucrats who sit at the head of the unions did everything in their power to turn this important strike into one of the worst betrayals on a long list. At every turn they sabotaged the strike, undermining the militant united power that the workers showed in struggle with “strategic” decisions that left the union’s position weak and demoralized the strikers.

The most prominent of these betrayals were the pulling of pickets from Ralphs stores at the end of October, just three weeks into the strike, and the slashing of strike pay to the workers in late December. Such is the twisted logic of people who support the capitalist system but run the mass organizations of the working class: they give presents to the bosses at Halloween, and play dirty tricks on their own union’s workers at Christmas.

Bosses Chose Class Battleground

The bosses picked this battle carefully and prepared for it thoroughly. For them it was a test case for forcing massive cuts on a union seen as strong and militant, particularly in that area. They provoked the strike with a contract proposal of outrageous attacks. First, they set a strict cap on payments for health care coverage, leaving workers and retirees entirely at the mercy of the blood-sucking health care industry and the skyrocketing prices they are charging for medical care. Second, they instituted a two-tier wage and benefit system–in effect, the employers want new hires to have to work full-time to earn the modest wages part-timers make now.

As soon as the strike began, the supermarket companies showed their capitalist class solidarity, joining forces to fight against their workers. Safeway, Kroger and Albertsons negotiate union contracts together, and as soon as the UFCW struck Safeway, the other two responded with an immediate lockout. The three companies made an agreement to share all the profits they made during the strike.

In the face of the attack, the workers showed their own class solidarity through the strikers’ fighting spirit and the widespread community support for them. But the union is saddled with a leadership that does not share that spirit and does not believe in broad working-class solidarity in struggle. It believes only in class collaboration between the workers and the bosses. And when the bosses mobilize for open warfare, all that’s left for these sorry bureaucrats is capitulation.

The Role Of Labor Bureaucrats

It is necessary to uncover the real reasons behind the bureaucrats’ betrayals in order to combat them effectively. In the wake of an impending disaster like the one in California, there are two different superficial conclusions that people often come to: either the leaders just made a lot of mistakes by accident or incompetence, or they are just fat cats in cahoots with the bosses. Neither of these views can serve as fundamental explanations of the bureaucrats’ role, although they can both be very true. Fat cats they are: when union honchos like Los Angeles UFCW Local 770 President Rick Icaza who pull in $250,000 a year slash workers’ strike pay to $150 a week or less, it is revolting. But this is just one gross reflection of the root problem, the class divide between the ranks of union workers and the layer of bureaucrats who run the unions.

The essential role of the labor bureaucracy in the capitalist system is as brokers for the sale of the workers’ labor power to the capitalists. As such, their very existence – and their six-figure salaries – are dependent on the existence of the capitalist profit system itself. Therefore any method of struggle that even points to the question of challenging the capitalist system of exploitation and profit altogether, is repellent to union bureaucrats – they avoid it like the plague. At best, they want to get what they see as a good deal for the workers, but only within the limits of what is “reasonable” so that the capitalists can still make profits.

Indeed, a centerpiece of the bureaucrats’ public relations campaign has been to emphasize how high the supermarket firms’ profit margins have been recently (and that therefore the supermarket bosses can afford to toss some bones). But companies base their plans not simply on their present level of profits, but on what they expect their future profits to be. And with non-union, low-wage Wal-Mart set to expand its business in the grocery industry – in particular in California where it is planning to launch a number of “Supercenters” – the supermarket companies are planning for their competitive attack by waging war on the union to slash wages and benefits.

How to Fight Wal-Mart – and How Not to

The supermarket strike is but one example (if a very important one) of the Wal-Mart problem facing the working class. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest company. It got this way by being ruthless with its competitors, its suppliers and above all with its workers. It represents the cutting edge of corporate attacks on the work and living standards of American workers. In its impact on the California supermarkets, it is not simply a competitor to the supermarket bosses but their labor relations advisor.

A clear and immediate response to the Wal-Mart danger is to launch a massive unionization drive at the behemoth. But while the AFL-CIO bureaucracy pays lip service to this goal, in practice they are not serious at all about taking on the task. To successfully organize Wal-Mart will at the very minimum mean mass demonstrations, coordinated strikes by other unions, bold organizing tactics (legal and illegal) – most certainly including battling, mass pickets. This is far more than the timid, legalistic tactics of the bureaucrats will allow. Instead the labor fakers make pathetic stop-gap appeals to keep Wal-Mart out of particular areas and markets via city zoning regulations and the like. In this they get outflanked by Wal-Mart through tactics like petition drives, which no doubt collect the signatures of many working-class people who are attracted to Wal-Mart’s low prices on basic consumer items.

Thus the labor bureaucracy as a whole employs methods that can’t stop Wal-Mart, and can hardly hope to even contain it. This has created a far more difficult situation for the UFCW bureaucrats in particular, who are hardly up for the challenge. They publicly dismiss the supermarkets’ concerns about the need to compete with Wal-Mart, while underneath being very concerned about the companies’ profitability. They knew that whatever strike they led would be limited and would accept concessions. But still they grossly underestimated the extent of the bosses’ attacks, their resolve and intransigence.

Why The Ralphs Pickets Were Pulled

When we look at the UFCW leaders’ betrayals in light of their fundamental role in the system, the real reasons for their betrayals will become clear. If profitability is sacred, and methods of struggle that call into question the need for the profit system are taboo, then broad, industry-wide united struggles are a great risk, to be avoided if at all possible. For decades the bureaucrats have kept strikes isolated, often refusing to even call out all workers at the same workplace or in the same union to strike together, much less all workers across a whole industry, much less all workers in a general strike. For the bigger and broader a strike becomes, the more it can pose the question: who runs society, the bosses or the workers? For a bureaucrat, the mere threat of asking the question sets off alarm bells: “Don’t go there.”

But from the very beginning, the UFCW leaders had a problem in the California supermarkets; the companies themselves forced a broader struggle on them! The lockout of Albertsons and Ralphs workers placed a joint, industry-wide struggle right in the hands of the union. For the fighting ranks of workers, that meant great potential power; for the fearful bureaucrats, it meant a great potential risk. It so contradicted the very essence of their role in the system that they rushed to throw away the dangerous power as if it were the Ring of Doom.

Of course, it would have been too transparently craven to simply not picket the scab-operated locked-out Albertsons and Ralphs stores at all and only picket Safeway’s Vons and Pavilion stores from the get-go. The bureaucrats are brokers, but they have to maintain the front of putting up some kind of fight so they don’t lose face before the ranks as union leaders. So they waited three weeks and then just pulled the pickets from Ralphs. They thus proved that not only will they do everything in their power to keep strikes as isolated as possible, but even when a broader strike is forced on them, they will do everything in their power to make it isolated again!

As they did so, they sowed confusion at every turn with a trail of misinformation. They made the lame excuse that by pulling the Ralphs pickets they were setting one employer against the others, when everyone knew that the three supermarket firms were sharing their profits during the strike/lockout. They made the equally lame statement that the move was a “gesture of thanks” to the community for its support, to give them easier shopping options. This was as if to say: “Thank you for supporting us; now to show our appreciation we will stop supporting ourselves and we invite you to aid the enemy while he is beating us down.”

Yet for union audiences the bureaucrats denied that they were actually telling people to shop at the scab-run Ralphs stores. This was partly pre-emptive face-saving and partly a response to the evident anger among the ranks of the strikers that the picket lines were pulled. The bureaucrats were entirely contradicting themselves, a fitting match for their contradictory role in society as the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.

Union Leaders Unite Against United Struggle

While pulling the Ralphs pickets was the clearest example of the union leaders’ fear of a broad, united struggle, other important betrayals exposed the same thing. For starters, there was the Los Angeles transit strike taking place simultaneously with the supermarket strike in the fall. For working-class fighters, that should have been a golden opportunity to use the potentially massive combined strength of two powerful unions striking together; for the bureaucrats of both unions, the two strikes were happening in two different worlds. Conveniently for the leaders of both unions, the transit strike was quickly sold out and a rotten contract rammed down workers’ throats.

Then there was the criminal saga of the distribution center (food warehouse) picket lines. These were cynically manipulated by the leaders of the UFCW and the Teamsters to create the appearance of cross-union solidarity – while they actually took great care to ensure that the picketing was as ineffective as possible. A Teamster worker expressed the essence of the matter in a Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) article in late December:

The timing was terrible. First the pickets were extended November 24 after we had already supplied the stores for the Thanksgiving holiday. Then they pull them down December 22 just in time to make us work 12 to 14 hour days to clean up the mess and get ready for the remaining holidays.

The Teamsters leadership in fact had given contradictory signals about its solidarity from the beginning. As the supermarket strike began, they reportedly stated that Teamsters would “not drive a single truck from a distribution center once the picket line goes up.” (Quoted by pirate radio station Free Radio San Diego, October 10.) Yet the Teamsters and UFCW leaders collaborated to make sure that picket lines didn’t go up at distribution centers at all, until they orchestrated the deliberately ineffective show of solidarity in late November. The true face of the Teamster bureaucrats’ contempt for strike solidarity was revealed in the words of the Teamsters Joint Council President, Jim Santangelo: “Everyone has the right to cross a picket line,” and “This is not our strike.”

(The TDU itself offers no real alternative for militant workers: see for example our article in PR 56, “Government Out of the Teamsters.” But their current oppositional role and long-term presence in the union allows them insights into the betrayals of the leadership.)

Heroic Resistance

In the face of all this bureaucratic treachery, one section of striking UFCW and Teamster workers made a heroic stand of resistance, understanding that while it may not be Santangelo’s strike, it is their strike. The TDU’s account of what happened when the leadership called off the picket lines in December deserves to be quoted at length:

Rank and File Power defeated the attempt to remove pickets from the Vons Distribution facilities. The UFCW picketers refused to move when their leadership informed them of the decision to remove pickets. The 2,000 Vons Teamsters have honored the line. All Teamsters salute the Vons Teamsters of Locals 848 and 630 for showing tremendous solidarity despite the back to work directive.

The Teamsters leadership has since tried to explain the maintaining of pickets at the Vons facilities as a strategic move on their part. The truth is the only reason the pickets have remained at the Vons distribution facilities is that rank and file Teamsters have refused to budge.

As Teamsters Local 630 member Frank Villa said, “These UFCW guys are heroes. They’re not letting Jim Santangelo move them. If not for them, the Teamsters would have been out of this completely.” (Labor Notes, February 2004.)

While this class-conscious stand has not been enough to turn the tide of this strike, this kind of courageous action will always be key to overcoming the bosses’ attacks and the bureaucrats’ betrayals in the approaching mass struggles of the working class. Revolutionaries would fight to provide leadership to workers engaged in such actions, campaigning to spread their resistance throughout the ranks.

But in this battle, workers’ resistance did not spread to the point where the bureaucrats’ control of the situation was threatened. Part and parcel of the bureaucrats’ entire strike strategy, an element of every betrayal, was the need to demoralize the ranks. Only then would the kind of settlement that safeguards the capitalists’ profitability be possible, as the workers lose hope that continuing their struggle would achieve anything better. It may not be coincidental that just days after the flare-up of militant struggle at the Vons distribution centers, the UFCW leaders made the infamous move to slash strike pay. It is to be expected that they would want to dump water on any possible lingering embers of workers’ confidence in their struggle, before there was any chance the spark of militancy could spread and burn brighter instead of just burning out.

The UFCW leadership had foreshadowed these moves a few days in advance when it made its official sell-out “compromise” contract counter-proposal December 19. They offered to accept virtually all of the bosses’ two-tier scheme to slash wages for new hires, asking for only pennies more than what management had demanded. (Where the bosses proposed a starting wage of $8.90 per hour for newly hired food clerks, the union bureaucrats actually responded with a counter-proposal of $8.95! For general merchandise/meat clerks, they held out for a whopping $7.90 where the bosses offered $7.55.) And they made major concessions on health care as well.

This is not what the bureaucrats wanted going into the struggle – as we pointed out above, they grossly underestimated how hard a line the companies were going to take. Thus they were caught off-guard by how badly the strike was going, even from their own perspective. Still, with this proposal they hoped that the stage was set for a face-saving sell-out: one that gives management almost all of what it demanded while leaving just enough crumbs to enable them to call the defeat a victory. But to their alarm, the companies weren’t even giving them that – the bosses were out for even more blood.

AFL-CIO’s “National Campaign”: No Answer

Hence the desperate intervention by the AFL-CIO in mid-January. With the prospect of not just losing the strike but losing face as well, the national union bureaucracy suddenly saw what little is left of its own prestige and relevance at stake in this struggle. “New organizing” has been AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s calling card, and a crushing defeat of low-paid, part-time workers of color and immigrants who are already organized – right at the scene of the Justice for Janitors campaign which was his one prominent success – would be a bad stain on his reputation.

The AFL-CIO proclaimed it was turning the California supermarket strike into a “national campaign.” But after the failure of a local strategy riddled with holes, they merely added similar ineffective strategies rather than reinforcing the strike itself. That way they could fail on a national, not just a local, scale. For the bureaucrats, “national campaign” means extended public relations, boycotts, publicity-stunt arrests rather than effective mass pickets, demonstrations in front of corporate executives’ houses or in other cities – but all for show, out of an inability to build the strike. Rather than an extension of a solid strike, it is a substitute for one.

What Could Have Been Done

Revolutionaries, like all serious working-class fighters, look for every opportunity to turn things around. It was important and encouraging to note the marked anger of the rank and file at the various bureaucratic betrayals – and their willingness to openly defy bureaucratic orders, as the pickets at the Vons distribution facilities demonstrated.

During the strike, the way forward was to demand mass meetings of all strikers, where workers could elect strike committees empowered to lead the struggle. Strike committees could carry out militant and necessary actions like organizing militant mass pickets of all struck and locked-out stores, and all distribution centers, that would keep people out instead of respecting the laws of the bosses’ courts. Forming strike committees would force the bureaucrats to actually lead the struggle, or else the strike committees would simply shove them aside and take over full leadership of the strike and the local union. The UFCW could also have demanded that Central Labor Councils provide massive support to the picket lines and pour real resources into the strike in the form of mobilized labor. This is the opposite of how the strike was conducted and the opposite of the AFL-CIO’s “national campaign.”

The course of the strike revealed the treachery of the present union leadership; not to all the strikers, but to the most militant and class-conscious layers. With these workers, in the supermarkets and other industries, revolutionary Marxists want to begin a discussion about the deeper lessons of the strike, the conclusions to be drawn, and the strategy the working class needs to adopt.

We believe the answer to the betrayals by the bureaucratic leadership is not to reject the need for working-class leadership or the need for unions. It is no use to try to ignore the labor bureaucracy. What is urgently needed is a head-on challenge by militant, class-conscious workers fighting to take over leadership of the unions themselves. As ineffective as the bureaucrats are at waging struggle against the bosses, they will fight like cornered rats to protect their position against challenges from the ranks. So a serious struggle for leadership must have audacity and commitment, and a clear program of uncompromising class struggle within the union as well as against the bosses. We believe the only form of organization that can meet these demands is the revolutionary party of the working class, built by the vanguard of the class itself.

This vanguard leadership will champion the fight for class militancy, including taking the level of struggle beyond the limits of unionism to a class-wide political fight. A central element in that strategy would include the use of the general strike weapon. Through such a fight we would seek to prove that the only way to truly secure the underlying demands of the supermarket strike – decent wages for all, full protection against layoffs, guaranteed health care, will be through socialist revolution and the construction of the workers’ own state.