Grocery jobs: Keep them union!

Workers’ Correspondence

The cause of the supermarket strike is long-standing problems that have now reached the boiling point. I say this as someone who worked for Ralphs Supermarkets for 13 years in the service bakery and service deli, serving as a store steward in Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Preparing for negotiations with the food employers six years ago, UFCW members agreed that there needed to be greater professionalism in our industry. When we were hired, we expected to work at this job all of our lives. The grocery store was not a part-time gig. We demanded that the pay had to be satisfactory, that health care be provided for ourselves and our families, and that part-time work be reduced and eventually eliminated.

We also agreed that, for the first time, the 15 cents per hour employer contribution to our retirement fund would be redirected into a strategic “market share fund” to combat the rise in nonunion activity in our union’s jurisdiction. Huge retailers like Wal-Mart were entering Southern California and taking business away from our union stores. The UFCW agreed with the food employers that we needed to “level the playing field” by organizing the employees of nonunion retailers.

Half of the 15 cents per hour taken from the pension fund was paid into a “market share fund” for organizing work at nonunion stores. The remaining 7 1/2 cents would be paid back to the employees in the form of annual bonuses, with a reminder of what it was for: to stop nonunion retailers from opening new stores in Southern California. The slogan was “shop (with your annual bonus) where you work.”

Employees of union stores earned $6.00 an hour during their non-working hours picketing nonunion retailers. I picketed three days per week at a local Kmart Superstore.

Was this material incentive why we struggled? No! It was the knowledge that everything we got came from the union and our contract. Our wages, our health insurance (100 percent paid-for HMO coverage), our retirement benefits (vesting after 10 years), and our grievance procedure. Sure, we had to pay union dues, but the benefits of union membership outweighed the cost.

In 1999, I injured my back and was not able to continue at Ralphs. The union paid supplemental disability benefits for 18 months while I was injured. The company offered me vocational rehabilitation, and while my workers’ compensation case was being settled, I received training for a job in a new career as a medical biller and got hired by a temporary agency. In my nonunion career as a health claims examiner, I had to pay for my medical insurance for the first time in my life, had no retirement plan, and no job security. Last Aug. 29, I was laid off – my job had been eliminated.

If anyone ever says that there are no benefits to being a union member, it’s a good bet that they have never been a union member. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to strike to defend what we have. In our capitalist system, nothing is for free. All you have to sell is your labor power. In union with your fellow workers, your labor power has greater value. You get more – but not without a fight. That is until we own the means of production!

I have no doubt that the supermarket workers will win. ¡Si se puede!

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org