Interview: Baby Bust
Safety: Dust To Dust
Bad Boss: Shaming in Print
National Focus: Work's Cripplin' Us
International: Bulk Bullies
History: The Battle for Kelly's Bush
Economics: Aid, Trade And Oil
Review: The Art Of Work
Poetry: Sew His Lips Together
Saving The Planet
The American public is wide-eyed and open-jawed at the relentless tactics used by multi-billion dollar, highly profitable, national supermarket chains, to avoid paying decent health care benefits.
It was the longest and the largest strike in the history of the US supermarket industry and the biggest strike ever involving the supermarket union the UFCW.
The California grocery workers saved their health care benefits, and beat back employer demands to freeze pension funds after holding strong on the picket line.
During the dispute grocery workers flew across the country seeking national support; at one stage more than 1000 workers and their supporters marched down Wall St in New York city and blockaded the area as they urged investors to boycott trading in supermarket stocks.
Another action saw California clergy lead a march onto the palatial mansion estate of the Safeway supermarket CEO Steve Burd.
Organisers of the protest said the clergy-led march was a dramatic way of showing the public how corporate leaders live in luxury while their workers can't make ends meet.
In standing up for affordable health care, the UFCW workers put health care on the national political agenda in a crucial Presidential election year.
At the end of the dispute the UFCW leadership boasted that this dispute sent a message to US employers everywhere that attempts to eliminate workplace health care benefits will come at a high price.
Throughout southern California, the public was obviously very sympathetic with the strikers. The chains lost about $2 billion of business as consumers shifted to less convenient stores. Supporters joined picket lines at stores throughout the region
However the big national chains were able to absorb these losses with most of their 6530 stores nationwide continuing to operate, while only 860 stores in California were on strike. And some of these stores were able to keep their doors open with a well-organised scab labour source.
These big, unionised, supermarket chains decided to fight long and hard in California because they are running scared of the massive non-unionised Wal-Mart which is encroaching their territory.
Wal-Mart is famous for fighting unions who try to organize their workers - and as a result pays below standard wage rates to their checkout people - and they pay no health care benefits.
While the UFCW leadership is trumpeting a win many other unions are circumspect in declaring the strike a victory for health care.
But they are prepared to acknowledge the five month long dispute, which attracted national attention, has forced health care right up to near the top of the US political agenda.
Many unions have now got their fingers crossed that a defeat for Bush and a win for the Democrats will open the door to the many times and much promised national health care system, which will stop employers in their tracks if they want to roll back workplace health care benefits rights.
The unions are demanding that the Democrat candidate for President, John Kerry, keep talking right through till November about the need for health care reform for working Americans and their families.
The key problem with the final UFCW- Southern California agreement is that though existing workers may have kept their health care benefit's the three-year pact introduces a two-tier wage system.
New supermarket workers will have their starting wages slashed and benefits for new-hires, and caps the employers' contributions to the workers' medical insurance program for all workers. This will result in growing cuts in employee health benefits over time.
You can sense even the UFCW is not so sure that they have had a victory at the end of the strike.
Their media releases at the end of the dispute emphasised that this win thwarted a campaign to bust California's grocery store unions - and they buried talk about a campaign for health care.
This was the first time in nearly 25 years that the Southern California grocery workers union hadn't resorted to the strike weapon.
And it was obvious that the union had not prepared for such a huge strike - because its strike fund was low and little or no preparation of community allies had taken place before hand.
The union behind the Justice for Janitors strike in LA, the SEIU, had spent nearly 12 months before a strike happened cultivating supporters, explaining their position to community groups and clergy, and making sure that elected officials were briefed on the critical demands they were pushing for.
This transformed the janitor's strike into a crusade rather than a bureaucratic ritual between labour and management.
You can see this preparation work had not happened because despite the importance of health care as an issue to unionised workers it took the California AFL-CIO several weeks into the dispute to gear up and provide support for the UFCW strikes while the National AFL-CIO didnÆt come into the dispute until three months into the strike
Many local clergy, community groups and other unions eventually did participate in rallies and prayer vigils - did raise extra monies for a strike fund. Some even joined UFCW members in civil disobedience. Several presidential candidates û Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and, last year, John Kerry û joined workers on picket lines.
But crucial weeks were wasted before the sympathisers were coming on board.
The UFCW workers are now back in their supermarkets - knowing that the next battle for decent health care will probably be in November with a do or die effort to defeat George Bush.
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