News analysis

The five-month grocery strike in Southern California is over and the members have overwhelmingly ratified their new contract. Oddly enough, a quote from the Communist Manifesto comes to mind: “Now and then, the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.”

Were these 70,000 grocery workers victorious? Under the circumstances, they were. Why? Because they saved their union and live to fight another day.

And as Marx and Engels further made clear in the Manifesto, unions most often are forced to fight rearguard, defensive actions against the overwhelming power and money of the corporate rulers.

These are tough times for a strike after an unrelenting 20-year corporate union-busting offensive started by former President Ronald Reagan and given a great boost by George W. Bush and the ultra-right Republicans in Congress. Safeway and the others were out to destroy the union – pure and simple. With their boy in the White House they were sure now was the time to bring the union down.

Yet the heroism and courage of the grocery workers’ picket lines, demonstrations, community outreach and fightback in the face of severe financial hardship and punishing sacrifice was incredible. They set an example of courage for all trade unionists and working people. They not only saved their union, they made us all stronger.

Even more, they put a sharp point on health care issues for all working families in this important election year. As their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, pointed out, their fight is yet more proof that there is no real solution to the health care crisis in this country short of a comprehensive, affordable, public health care system for all.

Their greatest victory is that “ever-expanding union of workers.” Safeway and the other food giants lost billions in sales because trade unionists and customers sided with the workers. Thousands around the country responded with shoe leather and money to support the strikers. Union locals, community organizations, churches, and elected officials rallied to the strikers, and to their health care issues.

Are the grocery workers going to be hurt by this contract? Yes. We all are. The companies got their foot in the door with a two-tier health care package for new hires. Health care is a major bargaining issue in every new contract these days. Now the pressure will intensify on upcoming contract negotiations.

There is no local-by-local, industry-by-industry solution to this crisis. Only a national system, as proposed by Michigan Congressman John Conyers in the United States National Health Insurance Act, HR 676, will work.

Lastly, this heroic struggle also points to the need for labor activists to think anew about some old, industrial-union-type ideas we need to update. Why are there so many regional, fragmented contracts in the food retail industry? Wouldn’t the grocery workers be immeasurably stronger with one national master contract with a common expiration date? Safeway, Kroger and Albertsons sure got together for this one. Can grocery workers do any less?

Scott Marshall is chair of the Communist Party’s Labor Commission. He can be reached at