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   Vol. 67/No. 42           December 1, 2003  
6,000 rally to back California grocery strikers
(front page)
Regina Davis, a grocery clerk, and others picket Albertsons store in Lomita, California, October 15.

SAN PEDRO, California—In the largest display so far of union solidarity with the grocery strike in southern California, thousands of workers picketed and rallied here November 10 in front of an Albertsons supermarket.

“We support this strike 100 percent. We know what it is like to be locked out,” said Leonard Trujillo, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The United Food and Commercial Workers union reported that 6,000 participated in the protest. A major highway and streets near the picket site were backed up for miles.

About a dozen buses brought hundreds of striking and locked-out workers from Albertsons, Vons, and Ralphs stores in the region.

A large number of the demonstrators were ILWU members. “Not much work is being done on the docks tonight,” Trujillo said. Last year West Coast dockworkers were involved in a major contract fight, facing an employer lockout as well as federal government intervention through the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act.

Also participating in the solidarity rally were dozens of members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE). There were oil workers, iron workers, teachers, Teamsters, and communication workers. “I backed the longshore people last year during their lockout,” said Johnny O’Kane, a construction worker and member of Ironworkers Local 433. “I’ll back labor wherever they need it because we could be next in line.”

A 20-foot-high inflated rat stood next to the stage where a rally was held following the mass picketing. Officials from the UFCW, ILWU, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and other unions gave messages of support. Los Angeles mayor James Hahn and other local politicians also spoke.

The work stoppage began October 11 when 21,000 UFCW members at Vons went on strike. The following day, Ralphs and Albertsons locked out 49,000 union members. In all, 70,000 workers from more than 850 stores are on strike or locked out.

The job action began after grocery workers rejected by a 97 percent margin a takeback contract calling for deep cuts in medical and pension benefits as well as significantly lower wage and health benefits for new hires.

The rally coincided with the first day of talks with Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Hurtgen, who conducted three days of closed-door talks between the UFCW and the supermarket bosses, played a high-profile role last year as a “mediator” in the confrontation between the ILWU and the longshore bosses. The 10-day lockout ended when President Bush used the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act against the 10,500 dock workers.

On October 31 picket lines were pulled at all Ralphs grocery stores in a move to shore up support for the union. Union officials said they did so to ease the difficulties for shoppers, many of whom live in areas where there are few alternatives to Ralphs, Vons, and Albertsons, which in some areas monopolize more than 90 percent of the market. The union gave two other reasons: the impact of the ongoing Los Angeles transit strike, which has made it more difficult for people without cars to shop, and the devastating wildfires that destroyed 2,600 homes and killed about 20 people in the region surrounding the metropolitan area.

“Our picket lines are bigger at Vons and Albertsons now,” said Craig Bague, a picket captain from a Vons store in Pasadena. “Having Ralphs workers coming over has been great. Morale continues to be high and support from customers remains pretty solid.”

Pickets have faced some violent attacks. Strikers in Laguna Niguel were attacked November 9 outside an Albertsons store by a half-dozen bat-wielding teenagers, one of whom punched a striker. Two of the attackers were arrested. On the same day in Palm Springs, four people were arrested after firing three rounds from a gun at striking workers in front of a Vons store. Police found two handguns, extra ammunition, two large knifes, and metal pipes on them.

In another development, the supermarket chains filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board November 10, alleging that a UFCW local in Orange County “is unlawfully threatening employees who exercise their federally protected right to continue working during the current labor dispute.”

While sales have picked up at Ralphs, the business press reports that picketed stores are doing only about 25 percent of their normal business.

A central issue in the contract fight is health care. The companies are trying to shift $1 billion a year in medical care costs onto the union members, including about $1,300 a year in monthly premiums and higher deductibles and copayments.

The grocery walkout has highlighted the broader issue of health care for working people, sparking ongoing discussions on the picket lines. “All people deserve health care,” said Joan Gonzales, a telephone operator and member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) local 9586 in Norwalk. She was at the San Pedro rally along with several other CWA members. “Last summer we were ready to walk out over our health-care benefits when our contract was up.” Grocery worker Craig Bague said “people are getting really angry over this issue, what with 43 million people without health benefits in this country.” Some pickets argued in favor of a national, government-funded health-care system.
Related article:
West Virginia grocery workers hold the line  
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