Attention, Shoppers: Los Angeles Supermarket Workers Are On Strike!
- Attention, Shoppers: Los Angeles Supermarket Workers Are On Strike!
The Role of Women & Asian Pacific Islanders In This Important Labor Struggle
By: Lee Siu Hin
October 29, 2003
[Web and Photos:
"We will keep on striking as long as it takes!"
Diana Truong-Davis, picket captain from Vons Supermarkets
Since mid-October, 70,000 supermarket clerks from nearly 900 Vons,
Albertsons and Ralphs supermarkets in southern California have been engaged
in a round-the-clock non-stop strike (or have been locked out of work by
management), in response to the management proposal to cut their health
benefits in half. At the same time, thousands of mechanics and bus drivers
from the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) also launched a strike
when management demanded it be allowed to take over the employee's health
care trust fund. In addition, on October 22 L.A. county professional
employees and engineers demonstrated in a lunchtime labor protest (legally,
government employees cannot go on strike), to demand better wages and
protest cuts in benefits. No doubt this is Los Angeles's biggest labor
strike since the janitor strike of 2000, and the focus is on fighting
against health care cuts.
While there are many other alternative places to shop in Los Angeles, the
three biggest supermarket giants in southern California, Vons, Albertsons
and Ralphs, are everywhere from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. Although their
employee's average pay and benefits are still better then working in
sweatshops in downtown Los Angeles, the management of these chains wants the
workers to contribute more to the rising costs of health care so the stores
can better compete with nonunion rivals like: Wal-Mart. When United Food and
Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 770, who represents employees of the
three supermarket giants, refused to accept the companies' demands, the
union tried to negotiate with management for two months before talks
deadlocked on Oct. 5, and the UFCW called for a strike on October 12, asking
workers not to go to work and shoppers not to shop at their stores.
Largely ignored by the corporate media is the role of women and Asian
Pacific Islanders in this important labor struggle. It's not difficult to
realize just from looking at the picket lines that the majority of the
striking workers and organizers are women, housewives, immigrants, people of
color and inner city youth, including thousands of Asian Pacific Islanders
(APIs) on the picket line. Some suggest that this could be one of the
biggest women/housewives/API organized labor struggles in recent U.S.
history. Corporate executives of the three supermarket chains underestimated
their women and new immigrant employees, assuming that people who barely
speak English wouldn't have the guts to go on strike--but the workers'
actions have proved them wrong.
The API Community in the Supermarket Strike
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the API-wing of AFL-CIO,
has been closely working with API striking workers, and has launched a
public education campaign in the Chinese community to win support for the
strike. Most Chinese immigrants live west of downtown Los Angeles, in areas
such as Alhambra, Monterey Park (AKA. the Chinese "Beverly Hills"), El
Monte, Roland Highs and San Gabriel.
Despite popular stereotypes about the API community, many Chinese immigrants
are still living at the poverty level. According to Michael E. Fix and
Randolph Capps ("Immigrant Well-Being in New York and Los Angeles"), despite
strong attachment to the labor force, large numbers of immigrants and their
families in New York and Los Angeles have low incomes, lack health
insurance, and are food insecure. The report says the most powerful
predictor of poverty and hardship is limited English skills. Immigrants
arriving after welfare reform's enactment in 1996-who have the most
restricted access to public benefits-are poorer than immigrants arriving
before the law's enactment.
Chinese immigrants who cannot speak English end up working in Chinese-run
grocery stories or restaurants, with minimum wage and no benefits. Those who
are lucky enough to speak English or who have some job skills can work in
offices, at the post-office, or in "foreigner-run" (in Chinese terms,
anything not run by Chinese is considered "foreigner-run") stores.
Diana Truong-Davis is a picket captain from Vons Supermarkets in Alhambra,
and a wife, a mother and a Chinese supermarket worker. She was one of the
first API organizers involved in the strike at her store. She speaks good
English, so she is one of the lucky ones: working for Vons brings in far
higher wages than working for any of the nearby Chinese-run grocery stores.
At the beginning, many shoppers couldn't understand why, when they are paid
better than most of their fellow Chinese workers, they were still going to
strike? "I would be happy if my employers gave us benefits!" some argued
with Diana. But she says if this labor struggle fails, their pay and
benefits will be eventually dropped to sweatshop levels. She recently wrote
a personal e-mail to her friends, explaining why she would risk her family
income to go on strike:
"Currently Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons are on strike. The employees are
asking to keep what they have earned -- health care and pensions. It all
started with Wal-Mart making Billions! They paid most of their employees'
minimum wage. Only the full timers get health care. 60% of [Wal-Mart]
employees have no health care provided to them, yet their employers are
making BILLIONS. [When our] Safeway, Ralphs, and Albertsons contract expired
this year on Oct. 5th they decided to try the "Wal-Mart" way of business.
This is why we are on strike. Employers earn profit with the hard work of
the employees. In return, the employees should be able to 'earn' their
health care. The markets also want to take away our pensions. Help me out
here: if it was only [a] $15 a week [healthcare payment], I would have gone
back to work in a heartbeat rather than picket 17 hours a day in the heat
and night. Just look at how Wal-Mart is making billions while stealing us
blind in the health care department. I think we already pay enough for our
hard work and being honest."
- Diana Truong-Davis, Picket captain
Issues on the Supermarket Worker's Strike
According to the union and the strike organizers, corporate executives from
Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs have refused to negotiate on the key issue of
benefit cuts, waging an expensive PR campaign and taking out full-page ads
in local newspapers against the striking workers. Although the Los Angeles
Times, in whose pages have appeared many lavish ads bought by the big
supermarket chains, have printed some good coverage of the strike, their
editorials clearly support the supermarkets. And several local Chinese-run
newspapers have also taken sides against the strike, or limited their
coverage to the "good news" of the surge of business at Chinese-run
supermarkets caused by the strike.
Currently the UFCW and APALA are putting a strong effort into supporting the
strike and helping striking API workers, considering this a very important
labor struggle in light of upcoming labor contract negotiations with other
southern California supermarket chains-some of whom incidentally are also
owned by some of the three supermarket giants (for example: Food 4 Less,
another major supermarket chain in LA, is owned by Ralphs and workers are
represented by the UFCW, but they are not on strike because their contracts
will not expire until next year). For their part, management is not backing
off, blaming the long strike on the unions. Here are some of the issues they
Health Care: The employers say they just want their employees to share a
"reasonable" portion of their health care cost-the so-called $5 a week for
individuals and $15 for families. However, according to the union, this is a
lie: the employers also want to increase co-payments, institute deductibles
and place caps on payments for prescriptions and surgeries. This amounts to
a 50% cut in medical benefits that would shift almost a billion dollars in
health care costs onto the workers over the term of the contract.
Wages: The supermarkets' PR argues that employees are well paid; however,
according to the strikers, the companies selectively cite only the highest
wage levels of full-time food clerks to back their claims - as if these
wages are typical. The companies don't tell the public that many employees
earn less than $10 an hour. Furthermore, they don't tell the public that 75%
of supermarket employees work part-time and must keep their schedules open
so they can be called in to work at ANY TIME when needed. On average, these
on-call workers only make $312 a week.
Although picketing all day under the sun, still very hot in Southern
California even in October, is no easy task, strike organizers like Diana
Truong-Davis believe that it's not just the living standards of 70,000
workers, mostly youth, women, people of color and immigrants, that are at
stake here, but the future of other labor struggles in Los Angeles as well.
Greedy corporations increasingly want to slash workers' wages and benefits
to increase their earnings, in the process changing the lives of thousands
of workers now and in the future for the worse.
For more information about the supermarket workers' strike, please check:
or call: (213) 379-3631
To know more about the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), please
*Lee Siu Hin is an organizer from ActionLA in Los Angeles, a reporter for
Pacifica Radio KPFK-Los Angeles, and a coordinate council member of United
Students Against Sweatshops. To contact him e-mail: siuhin@...
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