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It simply amazes me that the media has been choosing not to cover many of the current labor issues which are so important to so many--workers, companies, and customers. A multitude of people have been working without contracts for months in our major supermarket chains and have been enduring totally unacceptable conditions at the workplace, the result of which has affected all three groups in an unsettling way.

grocery worker strike

Grocery Workers Strike: So Little Attention to Such a Big Issue—Rosemary Jenkins

The latest issue pertains to the contract recently settled by those working for the Ralphs/Kroger and Albertsons/Safeway/Vons/Pavilions market chains. Their workers have been without a contract since March. Thousands of those who support this work force and the workers themselves have been demonstrating in front of stores (I attended a big rally in Santa Barbara not too long ago where people from other states, let alone those from Southern California, travelled in order to take part) to let it be known just what the demands are and what reasonable accommodations for them ought to be.

Letters signed by any number of entities and individuals have been delivered over time in the hope that pertinent corporate enterprises would be willing to recognize the needs of its employees and be willing to negotiate in good faith. Many of us leafleted customers asking for support should a strike go into effect. Some of us "adopted" stores to support those employees who would be on strike should the negotiations fail to produce a reasonable contract.

We can all remember strikes that were called only a few years ago. The results were devastating, not only to the workers who had to go without or with reduced pay for months (depending on partial wages from union funds but also Unemployment Insurance from taxpayers--never reaching full replacement salary) but also to the corporations which never really recovered from the strikes. Many customers who honored the picket lines went elsewhere (Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and [God forbid, Walmart)] during the labor dispute and never returned to those big chain markets.

Despite such "loss of profit" for these chains, both market entities have earned billions of dollars in profits (the Albertsons chain earned over $400 billion in profits last year alone while the average employee netted around $300 a week with the concomitant effect that workers not only have to work more than one job but must also rely on taxpayer funding to make ends meet). No company should place its employees in such an untenable position. The business plan must either take care of the people who earn them those exorbitant profits or find another form of entrepreneurial enterprise that will.

In June of this year, the employees (some 47,000 clerks, meat cutters, stockers, and other grocery workers) voted by a large majority to authorize a strike should the issues not be resolved by mid-August. Though the pressure was on the companies, the workers were traumatized by not knowing what their futures would be.

As is frequently the case, the market chains were not eager to settle because by stretching out negotiations, they could put off having to increase pay and other coverage to their employees.

As is frequently the case, the market chains were not eager to settle because by stretching out negotiations, they could put off having to increase pay and other coverage to their employees.

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For those of you who are aware of recently enacted California state and local city and county laws, all employers will be required to pay their employees more along with earned paid sick leave to be instituted over a prolonged period of time (beginning this year and extending to 2021 and 2022 respectively, depending on the size of the company). Thus, you may ask why these measures are necessary. The fact is that union contracts go far beyond pay and sick leave. Contractual obligations include issues of pension, healthcare, safety conditions, treatment of employees (making certain that enforcement is part of ensuring that the new regulations are enforced and, short of that, that companies are penalized in a meaningful way).

The asks were not unreasonable: salaries that would keep up with the cost-of-living; regular work schedules issued with sufficient advance notice so that workers could plan for child care, classes taken for advancement, medical appointments, etc.; healthcare and pension commitments [if employees were required to contribute more to those funds (as these companies wanted), the effect would be reduced net salary]--to name some of the most significant concerns.

Just this week, the negotiations came to a rather satisfactory conclusion--with both sides compromising (on issues, not principles). The vote was last Monday and the results came in a few days later. I kept looking in the papers for coverage. To my dismay, the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday only printed a beautiful color photo of a Granada Hills Vons employee prominently displayed with fellow demonstrators in the background--but no article. Finally, on Friday a very brief article was included in its Business Section which covered the contract resolution but only in a very cursory way.

Thanks to the diligent work of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and all the other entities and individuals who engaged in this lengthy process, a significant resolution was reached. According to Union Local 770 president Richard Icaza, "This contract represents a significant victory for our members, and secures their wages, retirement security, and control over their schedules." There will be incremental raises (above the local and state requirements in most cases), pension and health benefits will remain the same and, believe it or not, the corporations will increase their own contributions to these respective programs.

What is also important to recognize, lest we forget, is that this package far exceeds the conditions under which employees at many discount stores (such as Walmart) and chains such as El Super work. But we have not and never will forget them! Our attention to worker and other conditions has long been focused on both Walmart and El Super, and now that recent contract developments have been reached with the big market chains, we shall ramp up our attention and demands on these enterprises in hopes of an expeditious and similarly satisfactory conclusion.

Rosemary Jenkins

Rosemary Jenkins

It is in part because of the willingness of customers who support those (employed by the big market chains) who serve us in their various capacities that we have been successful in coming to an acceptable conclusion to these endeavors.

There is nothing like the power of the wallet and of our feet in effecting change.

Rosemary Jenkins