Hindsight is 20-20 vision, so the saying goes. When Ronald Reagan declared war on labor, he began by destroying the PATCO (air traffic controllers) union. Everyone can see that now. All of labor and the progressive movements now know that Reagan’s attack on PATCO began a 20-plus year, government-assisted assault on labor rights.
Turning point, defining moment, whatever you want to call it, the attack on PATCO opened a corporate offensive against labor that continues to this day. The attack on PATCO emboldened the ultra-right Republican extremists in Congress and the White House. It headlined their program of rolling back the social and economic gains of decades of struggle by and for workers, their families and their communities.
The strike/lockout of over 70,000 United Food and Commercial Workers Union members in Southern California is just such a critical struggle for today. Safeway and the other big grocery chains are leading the corporate, Bush-backed, attack on working families’ health care.
Health care is perhaps the most life-and-death human rights crisis in America. The unchecked greed of the insurance and pharmaceutical monopoly empires has driven health care costs sky-high. Union-negotiated health care plans are about all that stands between you (if you’re lucky enough to have a job and health insurance) and an end to employer-paid or partially-paid health care coverage.
Walk the UFCW picket lines and meet these heroes. They are moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, sons and daughters, Black, Brown, white and Asian, ordinary working people fighting for us all, against incredible odds and power. Ask them why, and they’ll tell you a story of the health care situation for their family or co-worker – the friend who will lose dialysis for their baby daughter, or the checker who will lose his apartment because of the new weekly health plan premiums. They are not the highest-paid workers, but the ones with seniority will tell you they stuck with the job because of the health care package.
How many times have you heard union members say, “If we had only stopped them at PATCO!” If only we had seen that there was no bigger fight for labor and all its allies. Indeed, for the working class, stopping Reagan from destroying PATCO could have put us on a whole different footing and saved us a lot of grief and broken dreams.
Today’s grocery strike is just such a battle. Let’s hope that we’re not someday looking back on an even more shattered health care system, saying, “If only we had stopped Safeway from destroying union health care plans!”
If you want to defeat George Bush and the ultra-right in Congress this year, then support the strikers. Health care will be a central election battleground. If you want to defend union rights against the onslaught of union-busting extremists personified by Wal-Mart, then get something going for the strikers. If the UFCW doesn’t win this fight, then Wal-Mart’s model of making workers pay all or most of their health care costs will become the norm.
Boycott Safeway! While the union can’t exactly call for a boycott for legal reasons – you can. Get with your union or community organization and get a leaflet out at your local Safeway telling the real story of what’s at stake in this fight. Ask people not to shop Safeway until the UFCW gets a fair contract in Southern California.
This one has to get us out in the streets. This fight is a fight for the whole working class. Here is the UFCW’s web page with other things you can do to build solidarity: www.ufcw.org/hold_the_line/.
The grocery workers on the picket lines know what they are doing, that’s why they call their campaign “Hold the Line for America’s Health Care!”
Scott Marshall is the chairman of the Labor Commission of the Communist Party USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.