Nov. 19 2003 12:00 AM

Activists and police collide amid grocery workers strike


    Ian Paterson worked for Vons for 19 years before the grocery workers strike began on Oct. 11. Last Saturday marked the fifth week that he has picketed outside the grocer's Pacific Beach location while living off the United Food and Commercial Workers' strike fund, which pays 50 percent of his Vons salary. His time working and picketing will be worth every minute, he says, if he can go back to work without the wage and benefit cuts his employer is seeking.

    Like many on the labor side, Paterson believes the plight of the UFCW in Southern California is the struggle of all American workers who face poverty from corporate glut, even those workers who haven't had to charge into battle, yet. In the spirit of all for one, other unions, including the California School Employees Association and San Diego Education Association, have empathetically pledged their support.

    But what about unorganized workers who support the UFCW and want to do more than passively boycott the grocers? They don't have strike leaders or bullet points to express their concerns, so they take to the streets banging drums and letting their voices be heard.

    As Paterson told CityBeat that Vons and Albertsons are trying to take away benefits that workers already have, he was unaware that at a North Park Vons, an activist-led march and rally in support of the striking workers had just concluded.

    It was not everything the organizers had hoped for, nor anything that strikers had expected. Two event leaders were arrested minutes after the march began, and UFCW representatives asked the fewer than 60 protestors to leave, essentially saying, thanks for the support, but let the professionals handle it. Paterson was also unaware that this group of activists represents a set that is ready to take steps that union leaders are not ready to take. In some ways, this small band is a prelude to a future that Paterson envisions without unions.

    The distance between the rich and poor is accelerating, Paterson says, and there is a growing potential for crime and even revolution in the gap. If this sounds familiar, it's because Karl Marx predicted that if the gap between rich and poor reaches a certain extreme, a worker's revolt would ensue.

    Jim Miller, an assistant professor at San Diego City College and an expert in grassroots activist movements, echoes Paterson's sentiments, adding that the top 1 percent of households have more wealth than the bottom 95 percent. "This top 1 percent," he wrote in an e-mail conversation with CityBeat, "has doubled their share of the nation's wealth since 1972 (from 21 to 42 percent), while the number of children living in extreme poverty has also doubled. One quarter of American workers are now earning poverty wages as the richest 1 percent are getting half of the Bush tax cuts."

    While Marxist rhetoric is largely nonexistent in modern union dogma, some independent groups and individuals say the UFCW needs to embrace Marxism's revolutionary ideology. Miller argues that early unions used "informational strikes" but also practiced civil disobedience and led aggressive protests, such as the 1937 workers siege of a Flint, Mich. auto plant that led to the creation of the United Auto Workers union. "The great sit-down strikes of the '30s, wildcat actions, as well as Civil Rights-era strategies like sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience," he said, "should be considered when other tactics fail."

    Nobody is ready to say the strikes are failing, although Paterson says there has been a lot of anticipation and insecurity on the picket line as UCFW officials remain tight-lipped about negotiations with grocers.

    Overall, workers, including Paterson, appear confident that they will win.

    Randy Edwards, 49, who watched as activists took center stage Saturday at the North Park Vons where he works, contends that the UFCW's strike fund will save the movement. And while it offers only half regular pay, he said strikers have a wealth of resources at their disposal, from food cards to deferred payments with SDG&E. "Financially, not everyone was ready," he said, "But we are pulling together. A strike fund will [win] every time."

    Miller, an instructor in English, humanities and labor studies at the college, is the political action vice president of the American Federation of Teachers local 1931, and he co-authored Under the Perfect Sun: What the San Diego Tourists Never See. His contribution to the book details activist, civil rights and labor history in San Diego.

    Miller argues that because the service sector is the fastest-growing industry in the United States, it's important to protect the quality of jobs in that economy. "If you look at the big picture-the kind of economy we are creating," he wrote, "crossing a picket line is a vote for poverty."

    By 11:22 a.m. Saturday, a small group of activists, 15 or 20 of them, had gathered at North Park Community Park at Howard Avenue and Oregon Street. The crowd eventually grew to 50 or 60, with members representing A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the Peace and Freedom Party, California Coalition Against Poverty, International Action Center and others. A few UFCW members were spotted at the outset of the rally, wearing union t-shirts and carrying officially sanctioned placards. Minutes later, union t-shirts and placards were nowhere in sight. An observer monitoring the event for the National Lawyer's Guild said that union reps came through, telling the strikers they could stay, but that they had to shed the official gear.

    Two women in their mid-40s-Albertson's employees who declined to give their names-stood on the sidewalk, eyeing the crowd and wondering whether they should join the demonstration. "We don't know their agendas," one said. "I see "˜socialism' there and I don't know what that is all about. We just want to go back to work; we don't necessarily want to be associated with socialists."

    Shortly, the two left the demonstration.

    The event's organizers gave several brief, animated speeches, working off the group's mantra, "Human need; not corporate greed," and then the banner-bearers led the gathering onto Oregon Street for a march to Vons a few blocks to the east. Mere steps into the march, a police officer said from his car, "Move the protest to the sidewalk."

    Some complied, but others did not.

    What happened next is a matter of contention. Police spokesman Jeff Sferra said the protestors surrounded a police car and made officers nervous, so they called in backup. CityBeat observed that when the group reached the intersection at Howard and Oregon, a patrol car slowly flanked the crowd from the left and crept into the group. Activists say the car nudged A.N.S.W.E.R. member Pete Reilly, 23.

    Reilly was not injured, but the intrusion lead to a verbal standoff in which protestors said they had the right to free assembly on the "workers'" streets, but police said the activists were obstructing traffic. The activists did not have a permit for the march, and Reilly was arrested.

    Jeremy Pickett, 32, was subsequently arrested while leading a group chant calling for Reilly's release. Both men were taken to police headquarters downtown, cited for interfering with traffic, transported back to North Park and released. Pickett was also charged with failing to obey a lawful order. Officers remained in the middle of the intersection until about 2:30 p.m., long after the protest was over. They called what they were doing "standing down." The last of the protestors was gone by 1:30 p.m.

    The marchers were not received much better when they reached Vons. Picketers scattered to the parking lot's edges and police officers showed up wearing riot gear, some of them with their batons out of the holsters and others carrying non-lethal weapons. Total police presence exceeded 50 officers.

    Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association, watched from the sidewalk. "We were concerned when we found out this was not organized by the UFCW," he said. "I'm concerned that this could hurt the cause."

    Dorene Dias, president of the California School Employees Association local 759, added that she agreed with the protestors' intent, but not their style, which she considered belligerent. "The streets do belong to the workers," she said, "but they were blocking traffic."

    After the demonstrators spoke, they savagely ripped apart an effigy of Steven Burd, chief executive officer of Safeway, Vons' parent company. Afterward, police officers followed a majority of the activists back to North Park Community Park, where the protestors ditched plans to march on a nearby Albertsons.

    It is in this chaotic rally that Paterson and his fellow strikers relate most to the activists. They are all in a long line of workers who feel misunderstood by the public and underrepresented by the media, victims of corporate greed and underhanded deeds that take place out of the public's sight-but more than anything, they feel like victims of apathy.

    Everyday, Paterson watches as customers cross the line for discounts designed to attract business, and former union members breach the picket for promises of management training. He doesn't blame the managers, who are just doing their jobs, and while he wishes that customers would go elsewhere, he isn't upset with them, either. The animosity is reserved for picket-breaking workers, Paterson says, because they undercut the movement for personal gain.

    For Jim Miller, this is precisely the issue, but apathy on the part of shoppers is a secondary problem. He has seen corporations, such as in the meatpacking industry in the 1980s, quash unions, and he's getting frustrated as individuals act as if the strikes have nothing to do with them. Some people argue, he said, that they don't have health insurance, so why should the grocery workers? "Are we merely a sea of atomized individuals engaged in cutthroat competition," he asked, "or do we have some vision of a more just community where everybody has a right to a decent living and some dignity at their workplace? I think that we've forgotten what it means to have a larger sense of self and there's a price for that. The UFCW workers are not asking for more; they are trying to keep their standard of living." ©

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