Workers Fight the Wal-Mart-ization of Big Grocery

After working for the Albertson's supermarket in Irvine, California for 16 and a half years, Susan, 52, has been shut out of her workplace after she and other workers demanded to keep their health care benefits and wages even though their contract was over.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), represents 70,000 workers for the "Big Three" grocery companies in Southern California -- Albertson's, Ralph's and Von's. Irvine workers belong to Local 324.

The strike began when workers at Albertson's, Vons/Pavillion, and Ralphs Grocery were shut out of their stores on October 11. Before they left, they were responsible for training the temp workers how to run the store -- people whom the companies brought in literally off the streets to keep the stores open during the times of the strike.

"We had to train them," said one assistant manager on strike, "and if we didn't, we were being insubordinate. But I tell you, it's heartbreaking to see somebody else doing your job and you know they're not as qualified."

Deciding to strike was a difficult decision. Workers risk their jobs, their unions, and their future. They do not receive wages while they are on strike, although the union does pay them about minimum wage to picket.

The corporations claim they need to "stay competitive" in order to compete with the Wal-Mart stores encroaching on their territory and undercutting prices -- yet Vons, Ralph's and Albertsons' combined profits are 91 percent higher than they were four years ago. Further, on average, only about 25 percent of these supermarkets need to compete with a Wal-Mart in a given area. In terms of profitability, each of the Big Three surpassed Wal-Mart in the Fortune 500. Meanwhile, 15 corporate executives earned $70 million last year amongst themselves.

The union has launched a website: www.saveourhealthcare.org that shows how well the Big Three are doing economically.

"I'm just a few years away from retirement and they want to take my pension away from me," Susan says. "And I've been working all this time. I feel like I've been betrayed by my company. To me, a promise is a promise. I gave up my weekends with my family to work at Albertson's. The truth is that we played by the rules -- the company didn't."

Albertson's and the other companies are attempting to create a two-tier system, in which the current workers would receive some of their current benefits, while new workers would receive no benefits and lower wages. As the present workers retire over the coming 20 years, the companies would undergo a complete "Wal-mart-ization."

"I look at our country," Susan continues, "And I look at how it's going. We're going to have only the very rich and the very poor. We're not going to have any middle class. Some companies give the same bonus, which is a share of the profits, to everybody, from the managers to the janitors, because it takes everybody to make a company."

Instead, Albertson's, Vons and Ralph's are glorifying the negative example set by Wal-Mart and treating their workers as if they were merely a commodity, merely a cost to be cut.

Todd said, "We're told Wal-Mart sends their employees to get food stamps because they don't pay them enough to afford food. And this is what Albertson aspires to become?"

There are apparently more Wal-Mart-ization schemes on the horizon. According to one worker, the Big Three have unveiled plans to phase in non-union stores, phase out butchers and food clerks, and increase the responsibilities of bag boys who are paid $6.75 an hour to start.

"How would you feel? Wouldn't you be pissed?" asks a striking worker named Connie. "What about the people who work Sundays and now they want to take away their Sunday pay [time and a half]? Kids are in school Monday through Friday, and Sunday is the one day where you want to be with them, but the grocery store can't even pay you extra on this one day? These owners profit every single day from your customers."

Connie worries that with the increased costs of health care and increases in premiums, out-of-pocket expenses for both routine and emergency health needs would become completely unaffordable on an Albertson's salary.

She adds, "This experience makes me not want to work here, but I'll go back after the strike and provide the excellent customer service again. Right now, the temporary service in there is questionable. The the meats are all out of code and prepackaged. They don't cut it for you. They freeze it and then they thaw it. Most customers don't know, so they freeze meat again at home that has already been thawed in the store. And that's a health hazard."

The strikers' flyers read: "We're sorry for the inconvenience but we couldn't let corporate greed take away our families' health care benefits."

This article first appeared in the Irvine Progressive.

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