Injustice For All

The strike by 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California is a watershed moment, not just for the union members who walked out, but for the standard of living of all Americans. If workers lose the strike, it would signal the beginning of a final dismantling of employer-based health care in every corner of our country.

Like many Americans, the grocery workers teeter between making ends meet and poverty, often falling into a downward spiral because of crushing health-care costs. When the workers walked out in October, they faced employer demands that would add thousands of dollars to workers' health-care bills, particularly for new employees. In fact, for all intents and purposes, affordable family health benefits for new employees would disappear, with draconian benefit cuts almost a certainty within a few years.
The employers—Safeway, Albertson's and Ralph's (Kroger)—have run a disingenuous public relations campaign. They have argued that their financial fortunes are at risk, in part because of an expected incursion by Wal-Mart into their markets. The three companies together control 60 percent of Southern California's food market; their combined operating profits have gone up 91 percent since 1998. Wal-Mart, if it follows through with its planned expansion to 40 stores in California, will only capture 1 percent of the market.

In an all-too-familiar story, contrast the workers' fight to stay out of poverty with the fortunes of the corporate leaders. The top 15 executives of the companies increased their total compensation 150 percent over three years, from $15.4 million in 1999 to $40.3 million in 2002. If these companies are facing such dire market conditions, why have they continued to payout large sums of money to a handful of people at the top? The truth is the employers simply saw a "profit center"—that would be their workers' livelihoods—which could further enhance their bottom line and their standing on Wall Street.

Though the strikers have had some moral support, that their plight has not captured national attention of the public—nor resulted in a focused mobilization by unions and their allies—brings back bad memories of another critical moment for workers' rights. In August 1981, Reagan fired about 11,300 air-traffic controllers who walked off the job after negotiations with the federal government over pay and shorter work weeks reached an impasse; he also permanently banned them from being rehired. In October 1981, the controllers union, the Professional Air-Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO), was decertified. All that happened with virtually no public outcry.

Reagan's act opened up a new era in labor relations, as much in tone as in specific policies. He signaled to corporate America that it was acceptable to aggressively break unions and fire workers who tried to exercise their right to freedom of association. The steady decline in unionism in the past two decades, ignited by Reagan's decision to flout long-standing public policy to encourage collective bargaining, has been almost entirely due to a change in employer behavior, not workers' interest in belonging to unions.

The same threat looms with the current strike. There is virtually no expression of national outrage. Though the supermarkets have lost tens of millions of dollars (a pre-strike calculated cost of doing business), management is paying a small political price nationwide. If supermarkets are successful in breaking the strike, a strong message will be sent: Even profitable companies can slash health care and they will indeed be rewarded by Wall Street for their actions. Inevitably, a wave of slashing of health care benefits will sweep across America, first in the retail industry and, then, inexorably, throughout every sector of the economy. Already, we are seeing companies drop or significantly reduce health-care coverage for retirees.

The stakes must be raised now. First, every Democratic presidential candidate, with their various proposed fixes for the health-care system and their newfound populist rallying cries on behalf of workers, should march the picket line and unequivocally support the strikers. Second, while organized labor is beginning to press harder in a more coordinated fashion, with mass rallies in many cities, it is a moment for a concentrated focus on this one fight. Unions might consider redeploying to Southern California the legions of foot soldiers now trudging around various political battlegrounds on behalf of Democratic presidential contenders—it will not matter who the nominee is if hundreds of thousands of workers lose their employer-based health care in the inevitable aftermath of a lost strike.

Third and finally, every organization whose mission centers on preserving a basic social safety net must see the strike as a defining moment that will echo through all facets of advocacy. These workers have put themselves on the line for every citizen to prevent a further undermining of America's middle class.

Jonathan Tasini is the national director of American Rights At Work.

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