The current supermarket dispute involving almost 90,000 employees of Kroger, Vons and Albertsons in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and California is obviously of considerable importance. First, it is one of the few large labor disputes of recent years.
If employees go out on strike over issues of wages and benefits in the United States, employers are allowed to hire permanent replacements to take their places. The United States is one of the few democratic nations that allows companies to hire permanent replacements for striking employees, and the only one in which this extreme tactic has been used with any regularity.
STRIKING IS A LAST RESORT
As a result of employees’ fear of losing their jobs, large strikes are now rare occurrences in the United States. The number of work stoppages involving 1,000 or more employees has declined from 298 in 1977 to just 19 in 2002, a remarkably small number for a work force of 137 million people. And, as is the case in the supermarket dispute, an increasing number of work stoppages are defensive strikes – attempts by employees to protect existing wages and benefits.
The issues at stake in the strike – the spiraling cost of health benefits and employers’ effort to pass on that cost to their employees – affect most Americans. More than 43 million Americans lack health insurance, while millions more are underinsured or live in fear of losing their existing coverage.
WHAT WORKERS CAN LOSE
If the supermarket owners prevail, their employees will have to pay approximately 50 percent more for health insurance, rendering it unaffordable to significant numbers of workers. If these workers are then priced out of their employer-provided health benefits, taxpayers will effectively pick up the tab, as they will be forced to seek medical attention in emergency rooms.
Cooperative collective bargaining between employers and unionized employees – previously the norm in the supermarket industry – has been the largest and most successful anti-poverty program in postwar America. It has enabled tens of millions of workers to earn decent wages and health benefits, to send their children to college, and to retire with dignity. In the service sector, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, and Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union have enabled millions of working-class Americans in the retail, health-care, janitorial and hospitality sectors to win decent wages, health and pension benefits – just like the workers at Kroger.
UNIONS UNDER ATTACK
But in recent years, these hard-won gains have come under increasing threat. American employers have become more aggressive in their pursuit of a union-free workplace and have attempted to slash labor costs by shifting the burden of health and pension benefits onto employees, even though, as in the case of the current supermarket dispute, they continue to post enormous profits. Last year, Kroger listed $1.2 billion in profits.
In recent years, corporate managers have vigorously fought efforts by employees to form unions, and have demanded concessions in wages and, increasingly, health and pension benefits in contract negotiations. As a result of this sustained assault on the freedom of association, unionization rates have plummeted, and millions of Americans stuck at the wrong end of the labor market now work under poverty wages with few benefits.
TAKING THE LOW ROAD
In the supermarket sector, Wal-Mart exemplifies this “low-road,” nonunion strategy. Its 800,000 plus (documented and undocumented) workers earn considerably less in wages and benefits than do unionized retail workers. The supermarket owners insist they need to redistribute the skyrocketing cost of employee health benefits in order to compete with low-road rivals such as Wal-Mart.
The supermarket strike is not simply a company/worker dispute. Nor is it only about the future of low-paid work. It affects all of us. The outcome of the dispute and others like it will determine the continued viability of the American middle class.
If unionized jobs with decent wages and benefits at large and influential employers such as Kroger disappear, we will move inexorably toward a polarized and dysfunctional society of haves and have-nots. If the supermarkets succeed in eviscerating their employees’ health benefits, we will move one step closer to becoming “Wal-Mart Nation.”
HOW TO HELP
To make a donation to striking families, send checks to: UFCW Strike Hardship Fund, Attn: Secretary-Treasurer Joe Hansen, 1775 K St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20006. Or, donate at https://secure.ga3.org/08/holdtheline.
John Logan is an industrial relations professor at the London School of Economics. This article is reprinted from the Web site of the UFCW, www.ufcw.org.