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Commentary :: Globalization : Human Rights : International : Labor : Organizing : Politics : Social Welfare
Showdown at Stop & Shop: Don’t let the union bureaucrats sell you out!
24 Feb 2007
Showdown at Stop & Shop:
Defend health care, pension, and union rights!
Don’t let the union bureaucrats sell you out!

When the contract for 43,000 Stop & Shop workers at 213 supermarkets in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island expired at midnight on Saturday, February 17, the mega supermarket chain knew exactly what concessions it wanted to extract from the workers. Stop & Shop demanded that its workers start paying premiums for their health insurance benefits, in addition to the already high co-payments. And Stop & Shop wants to abandon its obligations to workers’ retirement pensions, instituting a two tiered system where new hires would have to gamble on the stock market with a 401k plan, instead of getting a promise of pension payments after retirement.

On February 18 and 19, thousands of members of United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) locals 328, 371, 919, 1445, and 1459 voted unanimously at overflowing meetings to authorize a strike. But the votes were engineered to leave the decisions over when and whether to strike to the union chiefs. As we write this, the union bureaucrats are still meeting with the supermarket chain’s representatives. The workers are still reporting for their jobs, in tense anticipation of news from the negotiating table. But Stop & Shop is not waiting for anyone. The company is on a scab hiring campaign across the northeastern United States. Who will strike first? While Stop & Shop is trying to wear out the union’s resolve at the negotiating table, it is preparing for a strike, or a lockout.

Whose side are the bureaucrats on?

Stop & Shop has been demanding these hard give-backs during negotiations since December of 2006, but Jim Riley, secretary-treasurer of local 328, promised the bosses that the union would not strike, no matter what the members voted for. Before the February 18 strike authorization vote took place, he told the media, “We’re not going to take the strike vote and then take to the streets.”

The union bureaucrats are hiding behind the well-worn truism that “the members don’t want a strike” as they get ready to stab the members in the back with a sell-out agreement. Who doesn’t want a strike? The members voted overwhelmingly for a strike, knowing that it was the only way they would have a chance at forcing Stop & Shop to back off its attacks on health care and pensions. Stop & Shop fears a strike, the workers’ most powerful weapon, but it is preparing to weather the storm, and it is betting that the UFCW will help it sell a give-back contract to the workers. It’s the UFCW tops, more than anyone else, who fear a strike the most and are doing everything in their power to prevent it, while doing nothing to prepare for a winning struggle. And it will take a hard class struggle to beat back these anti-worker attacks. Stop & Shop’s offensive demands are a local front in a nationwide and world-wide bosses’ attack on labor rights and union benefits. No amount of savvy negotiating skills and speechifying bluster can stop the wave of health care and pension cutbacks that Stop & Shop management is trying to ride over the workers: only a solid strike can stop the greedy bosses.

Reject the give-backs!

Instead of preparing for a strike, the UFCW leaders are engaged in a futile attempt to prove their loyalty to their capitalist masters. In a full-page ad taken out in the Providence Sunday Journal of February 18, UFCW local 328 bureaucrats reminded the company that they had previously agreed to let the bosses take away health insurance from part-time workers (the majority of supermarket employees) with less than three years seniority. Anyone who’s worked in a supermarket knows that many part-timers never even make it to three years because of the low pay, unsteady hours, and draconian hard-driving management. But the only thanks that workers and their union ever get for signing a give-back contract is that the boss gets hungrier for more, more, more.

As we write this, union and company negotiators are hinting that they are approaching an as-of-yet secret deal, which is certain to contain harsh give-backs. It wouldn’t be a secret if it didn’t, and the workers can’t turn back a company determined to tear up their hard-won benefits without inflicting heavy damages on the bosses with strike action. The same union presidents who just days ago were rousing their members for the strike authorization votes with “hold the line” bluster, will be coming back to the members to sell their negotiated surrender as a “victory.” The members have to be prepared to vote NO! Contrary to what the union bureaucrats will try to tell us, a give-back contract negotiated without a strike is not the best we can get. The union members must not only have the final say, but must demand direct control over the negotiations and all aspects of the contract campaign. If the company continues to stonewall, or if the union leaders come back from the bargaining table trying to sell a give-back contract, the members should exercise their democratic right, not only to authorize a strike, but to directly call a strike and enforce their own contract demands.

We must learn the lessons of the 2003-2004 California supermarket strike and lockout

The tragic defeat of the Southern California strike and lockout of 2003-2004 holds important lessons for the Stop & Shop workers in New England. The defeat was not inevitable: it was delivered to the workers at Safeway, Albertsons, and Kroger by their own union officials, whose primary concern was to make peace with the bosses and not to endanger corporate profits. As we wrote in our October, 2006 Labor Bulletin,

"Aiming to cash in their profits from a round of mergers and consolidation in the supermarket industry, the Albertsons, Safeway, and Kroger chains conspired to break the United Food and Commercial Workers union in southern California in 2003. Safeway, which owned the Vons and Pavillions chains, offered a poisonous contract to the UFCW members: drastic cuts in health care and retirement benefits, and the institution of a two-tiered wage and benefit system ... The workers went on strike on October 11, 2003. Albertsons and Ralphs (owned by Kroger) locked out their workers in solidarity with their fellow capitalists. The chains admitted that they shared profits with each other to weather the strike and lock-out.

... [T]he union bureaucrats of the UFCW ... and the other unions stabbed the strike in the back. Faced with their greatest fear, the mobilized power of their own members, they acted to starve the strike and make peace with their corporate masters. Two weeks into the strike, the UFCW leaders stopped picketing at Ralphs and urged people to shop there, as a show of 'good faith' to the company that was locking out the UFCW’s own members and sharing its profits with Safeway. ... In another suicidal gesture of 'good will,' the UFCW leadership called off pickets at the supermarket warehouses, ending a successful alliance with Teamster truck drivers, and allowed these strategic choke-points of the supermarket chains to operate, supplying scab goods to the retail stores. Then just before Christmas of 2003, the UFCW leadership took a stab at the striking workers’ morale by cutting strike pay from $275 per week to just $100, all while UFCW local and international tops continued to pull in six-figure salaries. The UFCW put millions of dollars of concessions on the table, offering to make the workers pay $150 to $200 each per month for health benefits, but the supermarket chains smelled blood and demanded more: Safeway wanted $1 billion in savings over the three year contract. The strike dragged on, sabotaged from the start by the class-collaborationist union bureaucrats, until the bankrupted and exhausted members voted on Sunday, February 29 to end their strike, giving in to nearly all of Safeway’s greedy demands."

The key lesson that must be drawn from the California supermarket defeat is not that the unions are too weak to challenge huge supermarket chains, but that the union bureaucracy snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by sabotaging the successful boycott of the distribution warehouses, and by selling their members out with suicidal displays of loyalty and good faith to their capitalist exploiters. The New England UFCW leaders are cut from the same class-collaborationist cloth. Union members must be prepared to recall any union officer giving aid and comfort to the class enemy, the bosses.

For rank and file committees to direct the contract fight

It’s urgently necessary for rank and file fight-back committees to be elected in every supermarket, and for these committees to hold emergency meetings across all five affected UFCW locals to prepare for a strike, to oversee the negotiations, and to prevent any sell-outs by the union bureaucrats. Stop & Shop is not waiting: they are rounding up scabs and stashing profits to prepare for a strike or a lockout. If the workers are not prepared, no amount of bargaining will stop the health care and pension give-backs.

For Teamster-UFCW solidarity to shut down the bosses

These committees must immediately reach out to the Teamsters union locals throughout the Northeast, appealing to their union sisters and brothers on the basis of elementary class solidarity to build joint Teamsters-UFCW picket lines at Stop & Shop’s warehouses and suppliers, so that even if the company manages to herd scabs into the markets, they will have no scab goods to sell. The experience of the 2003-2004 California supermarket battle proves that this will be a decisive factor in any New England supermarket strike.

For a revolutionary class-struggle union leadership

The already-mentioned Sunday Providence Journal advertisement where the UFCW bureaucrats boasted of their loyalty to the Stop & Shop bosses also showcases the bureaucrats’ stupid flag-waving national chauvinist loyalty to the imperialist US government: it makes the outlandish claim that Stop & Shop is only being greedy because it is owned by Ahold, a Dutch company. “When Stop & Shop was an American-owned company, they cared about their employees. Now that they are owned by a FOREIGN CORPORATION, they only care about the bottom line.” Yes, if only Stop & Shop were a red-white-and-blue “American” corporation like Albertsons, Safeway, or Wal-Mart! This is a ridiculous red herring. A boss is a boss is a boss, and the American bosses are the most dangerous to the workers because they are directly represented by the US capitalist state: US corporations own the cops that beat up on strikers and break picket lines. The UFCW leaders’ protectionist demagoguery does nothing to strengthen the union, and puts barriers in the way of international workers’ unity to take down the greedy Ahold-Stop & Shop bosses. In order to rebuild the labor movement, the unions need a revolutionary leadership that doesn’t peddle poisonous illusions in the good will of the capitalists or their government, a leadership that fights to do away with the bosses and their government, and to take the industries under the control of the workers.
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