Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SUPERMARKET STRIKE....The Los Angeles Times has a critical story about the supermarket union in today's paper:

The Wall Street fumble was the latest misstep in a strike that has been criticized as lacking a clear, consistent and forceful strategy. Unlike the three-week-long walkout by Los Angeles janitors in 2000, which is studied by scholars for its innovation and successful outcome, the supermarket strike is likely to be remembered for its miscalculations, academics and other observers said.

....By contrast, tactics hailed by the UFCW as silver bullets have been tried and discarded. The union persuaded the Teamsters to join the strike, but they stuck it out for only 30 days. The AFL-CIO was called in, then told to hold off, then allowed to take over national strategy.

Local UFCW leaders have often been at odds: Two weeks after the strike began, picket lines were removed from Ralphs stores to give consumers shopping options and to shore up the lines outside Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons, but before long that ploy fell apart. Strikers started picketing in front of Ralphs stores in Orange County and behind Ralphs stores in San Diego, while in Los Angeles the picket-line question was left up to each store's picket captain.

How could a venerable union get it so wrong?

I hate to kick the union while it's down, but I have to agree that they did a poor job in getting their message out. In fact, a couple of months ago I tried to research a post about what the real issues were in the strike and it was nearly impossible to gather the information. The UFCW's own website was of virtually no help and their press releases were a mess of conflicting claims.

By contrast, the supermarkets have been consistently running full page ads in the Times claiming that the whole thing is over a $5/week additional copay for health insurance. "Our offer is more than fair," they say.

This is simply untrue, but the union hasn't done a good job of countering it in clear, simple language. Management wants workers to be responsible for large chunks of future increases in healthcare costs, they want to freeze wages for current employees, and they want to substantially cut wages for new employees. This is one of the first cases ever of management fighting to cut worker pay and benefits dramatically, rather than simply trying to rein in increases, and they have been flatly unwilling to negotiate any of this in any meaningful way.

And Wal-Mart? It's just a dodge and everyone knows it. Even if Wal-Mart opens all the stores they want not a good bet they will control less than 1% of the Southern California grocery business. What's more, a new California law is going to require them to increase their normal healthcare benefits. The reality is that Wal-Mart is a very minor threat to local supermarket chains.

As the Times notes, the union's problems go much deeper than just PR, but PR is certainly part of it. They just haven't done a good job of telling their side of the story.

Kevin Drum 10:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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