Militant Journalism

Grocery workers prepare to strike in Los Angeles: Hundreds come out in support

On Tuesday afternoon, July 9, United Food and Commercial Workers 770, representing the struggles of grocery workers at Ralph’s, Vons, Pavilions, and Albertson’s, held its first protest pending a possible union-wide strike action in Los Angeles.

In conjunction with numerous unions, including Unified Teachers Los Angeles, Teamsters Union Local 396, Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, and Electricians Local Union 11, Fair Workweek Los Angeles, Fight For 15, among many others, UFCW 770 gathered to form a picket line in front of a busy Ralph’s on Western Avenue in Koreatown. The Party for Socialism and Liberation joined the picket line in solidarity and support for the workers.

At the end of February 2019, UFCW 770 began the process of trying to get the management to the negotiating table in pursuit of a new contract to replace their soon-expiring deal. This was forestalled due to management declining to discuss anything other than the unacceptable deals they had on offer. Despite ongoing union efforts, the management refused to bargain until after the expiration of the contract in March 2019.

The workers’ demands outlined were as follows:

  • Family-Sustaining Fair Wages
  • More, Flexible Hours
  • Health and Retirement Security
  • Job Security in Changing Times
  • Democracy in Our Workplace
  • Better Neighborhood Grocery Stores

In the gaps during negotiation meetings, UFCW 770 held meetings across numerous cities to keep members informed about the ongoing negotiations, and to assure that their demands were being fought for. When management continued to stall, on April 5 the union requested assistance from a federal mediator for scheduled meetings on April 18 and 19. On May 9, the union reported that even with the presence of a federal mediator not one of the conditions were discussed in meetings that went on for hours.

With additional discussions bearing no success, UFCW 770 held a vote to authorize a strike for Local 770 members in June. This was brought about as the corporate management, instead of amending the existing unsustainable living conditions, moved to create more cuts across the board, offering wage increases of only about 20 cents (less than 1 percent), and threatening workers’ current benefits packages. This was evidence of the lack of will or concern on the management’s part for the unsustainable conditions of the workers, and showed concern only for increasing profits.

The strike authorization vote was held on June 24 and 25, 2019, with 96 percent voting to reject the contract offered by corporate management, and go on strike if negotiations continued to stall. Tuesday’s protest served to show the power of the organized Ralph’s workers and their firm support from the community.

As the event went on, the rally grew as hundreds of members of the community joined multiple picket lines outside Ralph’s, picking up placards and joining in with chants. “The workers united will never be defeated” and “Sí se puede” were among the calls heard from the picket line.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, UFCW 770 had multiple speakers address the gathering from a pickup truck, and went over the conditions leading up to the strike authorization vote. One speaker from the union shared that the manager of the Koreatown Ralph’s location, unlike other managers, had accepted the workers’ requests and would be transporting a letter with conditions to the corporate management.

In general, however, speakers discussed the appalling conditions that had led to the strike vote, detailing how deli and floral clerks were compensated 25 percent less than general employees. A union representative also described how “10 percent of Ralph’s grocery workers are homeless, [and about] 60 percent need a second job” to sustain themselves. One clergy speaker likened this situation to “plantation capitalism,” where workers are treated as property, not human beings.

Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of UFCW local 770, explained more to Liberation News:

“The companies that own these grocery markets, Ralph’s in particular, gave their CEOs, who [already] earn between $4 and 11 million per year, raises between 19 and 34 percent. They are offering the workers who make these profits less than a 1 percent increase. These workers are struggling … we have homeless people who work in these stores, people who are living in their cars, people who move from place to place couch-surfing because they cannot afford rent.”

She went on to elaborate that even though the current benefit package is acceptable, these companies are refusing to maintain benefits at the same level in the new contracts. Since most of these workers are part-time, they face administrative and scheduling difficulties that make balancing a second job difficult. “We are just asking for a fair contract,” Finn said, since in the current economy, “the money is going up to the 1 percent and leaving [people] who actually work for a living with nothing.” This new contract will cover up to 60,000 workers and impact hundreds of thousands more family members.

When asked about how the greater community can support the grocery workers, Finn encouraged people to come out to actions and support workers at their local grocery stores. She also suggested people telling their local store’s manager that, as a community member, they support the workers, and will not cross the picket line in case of a strike.

“This is the beginning of workers standing together, saying they need dignity and respect, and they’re not going to take it anymore, “ Finn ended.

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