Supermarket strike: Southern California grocery workers poised to walk off the job
A scene from California's last big supermarket strike: Striking and locked-out grocery workers and their families, along with national labor, community, and religious leaders, march Saturday, Jan. 31, 2004, in Inglewood, Calif. | Damian Dovarganes / AP

LOS ANGELES—The last time Southern California grocery workers went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions was back in 2003. That strike lasted over four months—the most powerful, and the longest, grocery workers’ strike in American history. It won widespread consumer support up until the day it was settled, Feb. 29, 2004. Community and civic clubs and organizations “adopted” neighborhood stores to bring the workers nourishment on the picket line, classic songs of the labor movement, and December holiday cheer to lift their wintry spirits.

In certain ways that action reconfigured the local grocery market landscape. Consumers boycotting the big chains switched brands to Trader Joe’s, Costco, Whole Foods, or food co-ops, and some stayed away permanently. The mega-chains sacrificed sales of an estimated $1.5 billion before they settled on a new contract.

No one wants another such strike, but so far Ralphs, Vons, and Albertsons, the leading troika of the local grocery business, have not come to terms on a new contract. The last contract expired on March 3, and since then grocery employees have been working without a negotiated agreement. Both Vons and the more upscale Pavilions are owned by Albertsons.

A strike could affect stores all across the most populous half of the state, from San Luis Obispo down to the border with Mexico, putting as many as 60,000 grocery workers on the picket lines. Members of seven United Food and Commercial Workers locals in California voted close to unanimously last week in support of a potential strike, including UFCW locals 324, 770, 1442, and 1428, which all have members in L.A. County. The Ralphs and Albertsons supermarket chains comprise about 46,000 unionized workers.

“We do not want to take these actions, but are being forced to by the corporations who own Ralphs, Vons, and Albertsons,” said Ralphs employee Rachid Chakir. “These companies made billions in profits, got huge tax cuts, and paid out billions to their shareholders. But they are forcing the employees who create their value into poverty and forcing us to work multiple jobs just to survive. One job should be enough. These corporations can afford to treat us fairly,” he pointed out.

The next round of talks is scheduled for July 10-12. Ralphs and Albertsons are standing together in negotiating the eventual master contract with the union. Unless they settle quickly, customers will flock to the many other options that exist now that did not exist in 2003, such as the plethora of ethnic markets, Smart & Final, Target, and Walmart, which all now sell fresh groceries.

So far the owners have put forward raises of under 1%, while the cost of living and the consumer price index in L.A. have risen over 3%. The skyrocketing cost of housing is a prime mover of that rise, eating up well over half of a family’s monthly wages.

L.A. County Federation of Labor votes support

“A strike and boycott sanction means that all of the 800,000 workers and their families and 300 local unions in L.A. County will stand together with grocery workers when they need us most. When called upon, we will honor picket lines or boycotts and not shop at Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, and Pavilions,” said Rusty Hicks, President of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. (He now serves as the elected Chair of the California Democratic Party.) “If workers are forced to go on strike, our members and their families will not cross the picket line,” he added.

The County Fed voted unanimously on July 1 to support its member union, UFCW, in any economic action, including a potential strike if the employers fail to improve their contract offer. Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons and Pavilions brands will be added to the labor federation’s “Do Not Patronize” list if the dispute is not settled.

Ron Herrera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 396, stated that his union “is proud to stand in unity with our Brothers and Sisters from the UFCW as they fight to win a strong contract. Rest assured, members of Local 396 will stand side by side with the UFCW until their hardworking members get the respect they deserve.”


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.