On December 10, grocery retail and meat workers from 17 different Smith’s Food & Drug stores from across Albuquerque and surrounding areas, including this reporter, came together to vote on an Unfair Labor Practice strike. When it was time to vote, the meeting hall packed with workers unanimously voted “yes,” authorizing a one-day strike in the following weeks.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1564 represents about 2000 Smith’s workers in the state of New Mexico. Kroger, the corporate parent of Smith’s, is the second largest retailer in the United States, behind Walmart, and the third largest retailer in the world. In 2017, Kroger’s profits were almost $2 billion!

UFCW Local 1564 has filed a series of ULPs against Smiths Food and Drugs with the National Labor Relations Board over the course of contract negotiations since May, making a short-term strike an option.

Smith’s workers are tired of being paid poverty wages by millionaires. That’s why not a single worker opposed the authorization of a short-term strike and picket. If Smith’s will not concede to the union’s proposed contract in the upcoming weeks, the union will consider canceling the contract and possibly move forward with informational picketing and
a work-stoppage to force the multibillion-dollar corporation to the negotiating table.

Contract negotiations have been ongoing since May. The old contract expired in June, but there has been a contract extension.

The union proposal calls for higher wages for workers at all levels including a higher minimum wage, Sunday premium pay, night premium pay, holiday double-pay, overtime pay and increasing pension contributions, among other benefits. The union’s proposal also calls for a 3.5 percent wage increase every year for those already at “top pay,” the highest pay possible, which was previously capped. Workers who had reached so-called
“top pay” years ago under previous contracts have not had a wage increase since!

Paid sick leave is also a significant demand being proposed in the union contract. In recent years there has been a broader attempt by grassroots organizations to win paid sick leave legislation at the city level. Despite living in the richest country in the world, tens of millions of workers in the United States can’t afford to miss work when they themselves, a loved one or a dependent, are sick. Workers are repeatedly betrayed by corporate-backed politicians from both parties who will not fight for a national law guaranteeing paid sick leave to all workers. The U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t mandate paid sick leave.

In contrast to the workers’ demands, the Smith’s proposal seeks to increase company profits by cutting wages and benefits and removing all department classifications to create All Purpose Clerks in an effort to strip away full-time hours, protections and benefits, including seniority. Not only does the company want to take away previously hard-won benefits, Smith’s also opposes paid sick leave, and does not want to provide retroactive pay.

In the past, the company has misled workers using quarterly lump-sum bonuses dependent on sales in lieu of higher wages. But those workers who have done the math know that this is a scheme by the company to direct more of their wages to its profits. One “top-pay” worker spoke of her experience with bonuses saying,“The company took away our raises in the last contract. I got a total of $15 as a bonus for this whole year.”

As part of the company’s disinformation campaign against the union, Smith’s handed out a statement to workers on the day of the vote that read, “Calling for a strike vote is simply irresponsible.” At the meeting this reporter, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Albuquerque and also a Smith’s meat worker, raised the question of whether paying workers poverty wages while those at the top are looting billions of dollars is not irresponsible?

In response, workers broke out into a standing ovation.

While fighting tooth and nail against workers demanding a basic standard of living, corporations like Kroger and its junior partner Smith’s are raking it in because of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act  that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2017. The law cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Corporations promised to “trickle down” a portion of these “savings” to workers, mythologizing about how this would ease contract negotiations. But as we can see from union negotiations with Kroger, and as we’ve seen recently with the General Motors layoffs, in reality corporate tax cuts only benefit the already rich and do not guarantee the creation of more jobs, higher wages or benefits for workers.

In an impoverished state like New Mexico where 63 percent of the work-force is employed in the mostly low-wage service industry, workers are fed up with poverty wages, and many are ready to fight back.

The corporate drive to lower the standard-of-living of workers will only be challenged through organized struggle. The unanimous vote authorizing a strike in Albuquerque against one of the largest corporations in the world showed the desire to fight is there!

The PSL in Albuquerque supports the Smith’s workers and will stand in solidarity with them on the picket line should they decide to strike!