In a bitter strike, grocery workers lost ground

  At the same time that Inglewood was fighting off Wal-Mart’s assault, the United Food and Commercial Workers union staged the longest grocery store strike in U.S. history.

The strike was triggered when traditional grocery chains decided to prepare for the Supercenter invasion by cutting labor costs — slashing health benefits and possibly wages — in order to compete. A study commissioned by Wal-Mart itself found that the hourly wages of Supercenter employees in Southern California are $2.50 to $3.50 lower than the wages paid by unionized grocery chains. Other studies indicate the difference in wages is actually much greater.

Some 60,000 workers for the chains Ralph’s, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions began the strike in Southern California in October. They were joined by another 10,000 workers from other stores, and many stood on picket lines six days a week for nearly five months. It was a brutal strike that cost millions in lost wages, and resulted in broken marriages, lost homes and cars, and even suicides. The workers and the chains reached an agreement in late February.

Barbara Maynard, spokeswoman for the UFCW’s Local 770, which represents greater Los Angeles, is optimistic about the settlement, saying that most unionized workers avoided losing health benefits and pensions, and hung onto their relatively high wages.

"We were just treading water," she says.

But many union members remain unhappy. The settlement instituted a two-tier pay scale, for example: Most experienced cashiers, clerks and other employees will continue to earn their pre-strike wages, but new hires and newly promoted employees will top off at a lower wage. New cashiers, who could have earned as much as $17.90 an hour under the old contract, will only be able to earn $15.10. For clerks, the difference is $12.17 to $11.05; for meatcutters, $19.18 to $16.35.

"Clearly, it was concessionary bargaining," admits Ralph Franklin, an Inglewood city councilman and UFCW vice president, who provided 33 picket lines with food, water and other assistance. Acknowledging the millions lost by workers and grocers, Franklin says, "This was a no-win strike for either side."

And despite the settlement, some workers have had their wages and benefits slashed. Workers like Anita Bowens, a cashier at a Ralphs in Inglewood for 32 years, also lost some retirement benefits and death benefits, which pay for funerals and other necessities.

"I sat here and read what they offered. And I cried," says Bowens. "It was the same contract (that triggered the strike), under a different name."

Elionai Padilla, who stood on a picket line six days a week, says that when he went back to work as a clerk at a Vons supermarket in L.A., his wages were dropped from $17.65 an hour to $12.35 an hour, and his hours cut from 35 to 24 per week. He has to pay for part of his health coverage, which used to be free; he uses it at least once or twice a week to combat his wife’s asthma. But still, he says of the strike, "If we don’t do it today, tomorrow will be worse. If I had to do it again, I would do it."

Maynard doesn’t blame Wal-Mart directly. She says the grocery chains’ demands were driven by analysts and stockholders, who wanted to match Wal-Mart’s profit margins. Grocers, she says, simply used Wal-Mart as an excuse to cut their costs. But she adds, "Through the strike, people became more aware of what it means to shop at Wal-Mart. Suddenly, people believed in their hearts and souls that it was worth fighting."