BAL HARBOR, Fla. – As a result of the hard-fought Southern California grocery strike, the union now has tens of thousands of political activists, said Joe Hansen, the newly-elected international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

With obvious pride, Hansen related his picket line conversations during the five-month strike/lockout that was settled March 2. The new activists are “politically astute, aware of the national political situation and issues like health care,” said the former journeyman meat cutter from Milwaukee. Hansen, the union’s secretary-treasurer since 1997, was elected unanimously to replace retiring president Doug Dority.

In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters at the AFL-CIO winter Executive Board meeting on March 9, Hansen took strong exception to any characterization of the strike settlement as a defeat.

“We can’t hide two tiers,” he conceded. “It’s something we have to fix.” But management’s demand to segregate the health care and pension funds of new employees from those of the current work force and to make no contribution on behalf of the new workers was defeated. Under those conditions, “it could never have been fixed,” he stated. But with a unitary fund, even with unequal benefits, “we are in a helluva better bargaining position when it comes to the next negotiations.”

Currently employed workers will not have to pay health care premiums for the first two years and then will pay a maximum of $260 a year for individuals and $780 for family coverage. Health care for new workers will be more limited, and their pay raises will come at a slower rate. A lump sum payment averaging $500 will be paid in the first and third year of the three-year contract.

Hansen promised a fight in upcoming retail contract negotiations in Northern California, Washington D.C./Baltimore and Chicago. The UFCW is not accepting the Southern California settlement as a pattern. “If we get the same demands from Safeway, we will get more strikes like in Southern California,” he vowed.

The 1.4-million-member union could take such strikes financially, Hansen insisted. It is already building up its strike fund again, and is prepared to borrow against other funds. In the future, Hansen said, the union would not hold back on immediately launching a national boycott of Safeway. “If it is a Safeway problem, it will be a Safeway problem across the U.S.” He expressed confidence in being able to overcome objections any locals might have to supporting such a move.

“The consumers in Southern California understood the issues,” Hansen said. Seventy percent of consumers respected the picket lines, he said, resulting in a loss of $2.5 billion in sales for the grocery chains.

The new president says he has a long to-do list. He thinks it is urgent to bring forward leadership in the union that reflects the diversity of its membership, especially the immigrant work force. “Solidarity among all workers – regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or immigration status – is our strength to meet the challenges of the future,” he said.

Hansen cited the need to build global solidarity to confront corporate globalization. And he would love to get industry-wide bargaining or at least common expiration dates. “Right now we’re working on moving our contract expiration dates closer together,” he said.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.

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