Supermarket Swindle: Grocery Workers' Labor Fight Is the Subject of New Documentary

Southern California grocery workers are poised for another round in their long and bitter battle with the three megachains -- Kroger, SuperValu and Safeway -- that dominate the market. Four years ago, ownership locked them out during a nasty contract dispute that dragged on for almost five months.

This time, their struggle will be televised -- by Brave News Films, the production company behind Wal-Mart: the High Costs of Low Prices. "When we learned that 20,000 California children had lost their health coverage under the contract the grocery workers agreed to in 2004, it made us angry in a very basic way," said Director Robert Greenwald. "As members of the community that care about these workers, we wanted to tell the story of their fight in human terms," he told reporters Monday. The result is a new film, Supermarket Swindle. Click on the image to the right to view a video clip. (Disclosure: Greenwald sits on the board of the Independent Media Institute, AlterNet's parent organization.)

The stories the film tells are increasingly common in the vaunted "new economy." The grocery workers say that they haven't had a raise in five years, and fewer and fewer have access to employer-paid healthcare and pensions. According to a study by researchers at U.C. Berkeley, 94 percent of grocery workers had employer-funded healthcare before the 2003 lockout, but only 54 percent enjoy that coverage today. Owners claim they're feeling the squeeze from discount chains like Wal-Mart, which has moved into the grocery business with its heavily promoted and controversial "Supercenters" in the last two decades.

But if management is being squeezed, it's not showing up on their balance sheets, which are looking as healthy as ever. Nonetheless, workers are being asked to make concessions on pay and benefits so that the grocery chains can remain "competitive." They're the only ones being asked to tighten their belts; while the average employee at the three chains made $497 per week in 2006, the CEOs -- David Dillon of Kroger Supermarkets, Albertson's Jeff Noodle and Safeway's Steve Burd -- each pulled in an average of $174,068 per week.

At the end of June, more than 95 percent of the United Food and Commercial Workers' (UFCW) members in Southern California voted to authorize a strike if it becomes necessary. Negotiations continue, and both sides say they hope to avert a walkout if possible.

But the Golden State's grocery workers have little reason to believe management is bargaining in good faith. During the lockout four years ago, the supermarkets' ownership group mounted a concerted attempt to break the union. Before the old contract even expired, they had hired thousands of replacement workers -- "scabs" -- flying some in from neighboring states. The owners locked out the grocery workers for 142 days in an attempt to make the union suffer for refusing a contract that called for dramatic reductions in employer contributions to workers' healthcare funds. The owners also tried to drive a wedge between older union workers and new hires by instituting a two-tiered pay scale that slashed earnings for less experienced workers and provided a powerful incentive for management to get rid of more experienced workers earning higher pay rates.

Even more dangerous in terms of the precedent it might have set was the grocery giants' push to deny affordable healthcare to California's grocery workers. The supermarkets argued that the healthcare concessions they sought were small, but an independent analysis by Richard Brown and Richard Kronick, two scholars at the University of California, concluded that the plan would have effectively spelled an end to affordable health coverage for California's grocers. "There is more to the employers' proposal than they have publicly acknowledged," they wrote, "and the proposal bodes ill for supermarket workers and, if adopted more widely, workers in other sectors."

In the end, the unions were able to fend off the worst of what management had proposed, but at a great cost. They ended up with a two-tiered pay scale and gave concessions on health benefits. While management lost an estimated $1.5 billion during the lockout -- and the good will of many shoppers -- most analysts agreed that they came out on top.

Ken Jacobs, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at U.C. Berkeley, wrote that fewer than one in ten grocery workers hired since the new contract took effect in April 2004 have healthcare covered through their employer. Half are uninsured, and the rest are covered through a parent or spouse's plan or are recipients of public programs for the poor.

Now, negotiations on a new contract have been going on for more than six months with little progress. The workers' contract expired more than three months ago. "The negotiations were stuttering, and now they're completely stalled," Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at U.C. Berkeley told Reuters. He said the vote to authorize the strike was "meant to restart the negotiations in a serious way." Both sides appear reluctant to pull the trigger and cause a work stoppage after the acrimony of the 2003 lockout.

Labor experts consider this the most important fight since the UPS strike in 1997. Greenwald's new film might help people undertsand that these are not "labor" issues -- they are issues of human dignity and fundamental economic fairness that are everyone's fight. The 2003 lockout may well have succeeded in breaking the unions if not for the vital support of the community. According to UFCW estimates, "From the first day on, customers refused to cross the lines, with an average of 75 percent of customers shopping elsewhere. ..." Maybe this time, management will see the wisdom of offering employees a fair contract.

You can help California's grocery workers. Visit Brave New Film's new site, Supermarket Swindle and pledge not to shop at the Big Three's stores if they lock out their workers again.


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