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Grocery strike hits middle class

By Daniel B. Wood
The Christian Science Monitor

LOS ANGELES — Placard-toting demonstrators remain a common sight at supermarkets here as a strike and lockout of 70,000 southern California grocery workers begins its ninth week with no end in sight.

Management and unions are still hunkered down; negotiations could trickle into next year. And the fight has become emblematic of a larger national anxiety over tradeoffs between consumer prices and decent-paying jobs. On one level, it’s a tussle between management — which says it must cut costs to compete with bulk discount houses — and workers who want to preserve health benefits. But there’s also a more universal question, analysts say: As manufacturing jobs disappear here — and across the Midwest and South — what alternatives remain for the working middle class?

In Los Angeles, which has seen two exoduses of middle-class jobs since the 1970s — auto plants and aerospace — the shrinking of one more sector of middle-class employment has vast implications.

“The public support that has helped keep this strike going longer than most thought it would is the latest example of how corporate America is getting out of sync with working people,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor specialist at Cornell University. “They are standing up to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute: This is against the public interest and it’s not fair.’”

In one corner, she and others say, is management’s self-interest and the consumer benefit of economies of scale. In another are retail workers demanding decent wages in grocery work — one of the last bastions of the service sector that doesn’t require a college education.

Both sides are marshalling support in states and sectors anticipating similar conflicts: While management wants to cut health-insurance benefits, unions say they’re the last, key benefit allowing retail workers to keep their families out of poverty.

“The southern California grocery strike has huge, national implications both because of the large number of workers involved and because of the extreme demands that management is making on the unions,” said Ruth Milkman, director of the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment. “It is a test of the waters ahead for concession bargaining nationwide in the new economy.”

Los Angeles has wrestled with its shrinking middle class for decades. In the 1970s, auto plants moved away, devastating employment in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In the 1990s, 555,000 aerospace jobs were lost. Experts say that if the grocery workers lose this fight, the racially charged metropolis could slip further into an economically polarized dystopia.

The loss would also weaken negotiating positions for ongoing and imminent union fights in other states, from New York to Ohio to the South.

“If a perfectly healthy grocery management succeeds in eliminating the health plans and other benefits of 70,000, it is a very dangerous sign for the middle class in cities across America,” said Kent Wong, analyst at the UCLA Labor Center.

Management spokesmen say they must lower their labor costs to compete with the growth of nonunion, low-wage employers from Wal-Mart to Costco — companies that are moving aggressively into the grocery business. Such large-scale firms have the benefit of economies of scale, which force suppliers to keep their prices low to keep megastores from buying elsewhere.

“We are entering a whole new era of cost competitiveness,” said Terry O'Neill, spokesman for Ralph’s Supermarkets, noting that the first of 40 Wal-Mart grocery supercenters is set to open here in February. Wal-Mart prices are about 14 percent lower than in other stores, partly because its nonunion workers earn one-third less and pay for much of their own insurance.

“All we are asking is that our employees share some in the cost of their healthcare coverage as the vast majority of American workers do, so we can get some relief in our costs to remain competitive.”

Whoever wins, the thinking goes, will gain momentum for disputes that pop up as contracts expire. An investigation by the California state attorney general will also shine the spotlight into collective bargaining tactics used by grocery management, and set a precedent for future skirmishes.

The probe is looking into whether the three supermarket chains — Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons — violated antitrust laws by entering a pact to share their profits.

Because of other unions’ moves to support grocery workers here, some labor analysts see a rebirth of labor solidarity, one that could bolster organized labor nationwide and change how strikes are waged.

They cite the recent move here by 8,000 Teamsters to honor picket lines and abandon distribution centers and delivery routes to 860 stores. The International Longshore Workers Union pulled 3,000 members off docks in Los Angeles and San Pedro to hold a meeting in front of a grocery that had locked out its employees.

“Union solidarity hasn’t been seen on this scale for quite a while,” writes Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor and the global economy.

And observers say that wide public support for the striking workers has also come as a surprise to management.

“The public has resonated with this strike because these are people they see day to day in their own markets,” said Miguel Conteras, head of the Los Angeles Central Labor Council.

“This is a fight by common working folks trying to survive in a middle class that is shrinking all around them,” Conteras said. “It’s a fight about what kind of society we all want to live in.”