Butch squints up into the winter sunshine and frowns. He's trying to gauge the meaning of a question asked of him, trying to organize his thoughts, trying to reply in an even, modest manner. Everything about Butch is modest-from his faded, cheap leather jacket and carefully ironed UFCW T-shirt, to the way he just casually mentioned that his wife donated him a kidney a few years ago.
"Honestly, man," he says, his face a picture of confusion mingled with a little pain, "I miss the work. I even miss the [florescent] lights and the temperature-controlled climate. I just miss my produce department."
This is hard to take seriously. Missing florescent lighting? Missing the musty smell of vegetables in the produce department? It all sounds a bit far-fetched, but there's no hint of irony in Butch's face, no sense that he thinks he's said something absurd. He's dead serious. He misses those things.
This is what most people don't understand about the two-months-long grocery workers strike. While many San Diegans are confused by, even frustrated at, the tenacity of the workers and the length of time the strike has already lasted, they fail to realize one of the fundamental points that is essential to understanding this whole issue: The strikers want to go back to work.
Butch, picket boss at the Albertsons store on Washington Street in Hillcrest, who preferred not to give his last name, is a 15-year veteran of the grocery company. Along with his fellow workers, he has been walking the picket lines outside the store since the beginning of the strike on Oct. 11.
Butch isn't the sort of guy to complain. He doesn't want to tell a sob story. He doesn't want sappy sympathy and tear-jerking narrative to obscure the cause he believes he's fighting for. For him it would be too easy, and perhaps distasteful, to focus on the 20 pills he has to take a day to stay alive, pills that he simply could not afford without the benefits he says the grocery companies want to take away from him.
He doesn't mind talking about the alternative work he has had to find just to keep paying the bills. Work like the day he spent hauling around rich cruise-ship tourists' luggage at the Port of San Diego. He doesn't mind talking about that-but, he stresses, that's just how it is; that's what he has to do these days.
What Butch perhaps doesn't realize is that what he has to say, and the stories he has to tell, may be the decisive factor in winning his battle. What he represents is the human face behind the statistics; the personal side of the rhetoric that has become currency in this pivotal dispute in California's labor history.
This strike, which has seen more than 70,000 workers at thousands of grocers across Southern California pick up signs and picket their stores, is far more than a passing labor struggle. Experts watching the collective bargaining dispute are concerned that its outcome will have far-reaching ramifications for California as a whole, and they say the dispute itself has much to say about the current state of the local and national economy.
The roots of the strike lie in employment negotiations conducted in late August between seven local UFCW unions and the grocery chains' parent companies-Albertsons, Kroger (Ralphs) and Safeway (Vons). At an Oct. 8 meeting in Del Mar, the unions were offered a proposal that members considered woefully inadequate. Ninety-nine percent of union members voted against the package, arguing that it contained unacceptable alterations to existing contracts. When the unions struck Vons-in an apparent attempt to divide the grocery chains and conquer-the corporate retaliation was swift; they stuck together and union workers at Ralphs and Albertsons were immediately locked out of their jobs.
Everyone knows what happened next. Picket lines assembled, and customers stayed away from the chains en masse. Meanwhile, checkout lines at Henry's Marketplace, Trader Joe's and other smaller chains swelled as a substantial portion of the public threw its weight behind the unions. As store parking lots emptied and shelves grew bare, sales at the chain stores fell by an estimated 75 percent, as both sides refused to budge, stubbornly digging in their heels and refusing to return to the bargaining table.
"They're not just stepping on our toes-they're taking a sledgehammer and smashing our feet up!" said Butch about the chains.
In recent weeks, Teamsters unions have supported the strikers by refusing to truck goods into the grocery chains' regional distribution centers, and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer began looking into the possibility that the chains illegally colluded against the workers through revenue-sharing. And last week, in a bit of news that observers considered to be evidence that the union is weakening, the UFCW was forced to slash weekly pay for its strikers from $300 per week to $100, $150 for strike captains.
Jim Miller, an assistant professor at San Diego City College and an expert in San Diego's activist history, sides with picketers. For him, the dispute is indicative of a somewhat sinister, depressing trend in the country's economy. "This is yet another example of de-unionization," he said, "of corporations seizing their chance to get a pound of flesh from the workers."
The core elements of the dispute focus on the employers' proposal to lower incoming workers' wages, benefits and pensions. The UFCW's position is clear-they want to keep the benefits that previous workers fought long and hard to secure in the first place.
"We're just trying to maintain what we have," said Mickey Kasparian, president of UFCW Local 135.
For their part, of course, the employers maintain that the package they offered workers back in August was more than reasonable and recently issued a joint statement to that effect:
"Under our most recent offer, our current employees would continue to enjoy some of the best benefits in the country. We offered to increase our contribution to an average of more than $932 per month for health care benefits for each current full-time employee-that is nearly 70 percent more than the national average."
So, who is to be believed? Is the action by the employers just yet another example of corporate greed at the expense of the lowly worker? Or is the truth that grocery workers have enjoyed inflated benefits and wages for long enough? The question that has to be asked is this: In the eyes of a judgmental public, are the wages and benefits grocery workers receive appropriate for the job that they perform?
Across Washington Street from Butch and his team, in front of a Vons store, picket boss Brian Collier, who normally works at a Ralph's store elsewhere, takes some convincing before he's willing to speak openly to anyone from the media. Describing local newspaper coverage of the strikes thus far as "totally anti-union," Collier cites a certain level of public misunderstanding about the key points of the strike as damaging to his and his fellow workers' cause:
"People throw out comments they have heard in the press, things like the $5-a-week claim.... We haven't even seen the final proposals ourselves, so I don't see how they can have these views."
Collier is referring to the oft-quoted co-pay issue that has been circulated in the press and in the public rumor mill as a counter-weight to the legitimacy of the strikers' claims. The proposed changes to workers' contracts, as regards benefits, certainly appear minimal at first, with employees having to contribute $5 per week per employee for single coverage, and $15 per week for family coverage. However, Kasparian is adamant that these payments are not the key issue. "This is not about us being stubborn and walking on a picket line for five bucks a week," he said in a prepared statement. "It has to do with the entire cost of the plan."
These costs lie in changes to a system whereby the three employers contribute money into a trust fund to pay for workers' insurance premiums. Before the strikes, the figure paid into that trust fund was set at $3.78 per hour worked. According to Kasparian, the rejected proposal would reduce this amount to $1.35 per hour for new hires, bringing the fund to less than 50 percent of its current worth.
Sidney Abrams, a benefits expert and actuarial consultant to the trustees administering the unions' benefits, agreed with Kasparian's bleak outlook for the proposals, calling the $5-a-week figure "nonsense." He foresaw the actual out-of-pocket costs to employees as up to $95 a week more than they currently pay.
Indeed, the strikers make it clear that the $5 or $15 co-pays were never the issue. "We know we're going to have to pay something towards the benefits-that's a given," said Michael Monahan, a baker with Ralphs for 12 years.
Monahan and others are far more concerned that the action by the employers reflects a fundamental change in the relationship between the unions and Big Business. Distrustful, on the whole, of the aims of the grocery stores' parent companies, they see this action as the thin end of the wedge.
"If we fail, it opens the door for all the unions to fail, and California will find itself in even more trouble than it is in now," says Honora Simonsen, a striker at a Vons store in Pacific Beach.
Ruben Garcia, an assistant professor specializing in labor law at the California Western School of Law, agrees. He sees medical benefits as so intrinsic to the relationship between labor and the employers that any erosion of those benefits will have far-reaching implications for the future of unionized workforce. "Healthcare benefits are so fundamental to the unions that they are almost non-negotiable," he said, "so it's not difficult to see this as a threat upon the entire union."
However, Neal Smith, an employment law expert and adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, was quick to point out that, in his view, the proposed changes are reasonable for existing employees of the chain stores. He stressed that it is new hires who will bear the brunt of the proposed modification of the contracts. As such, he views the dispute as a battle of convictions, with a hard-nosed union leadership unable to let go of its proud history of gains for workers.
"This is clearly an ideological battle," he said. The employers "are not taking any money away from current employees-they are merely reducing the amounts the "unborns,' or new workers, will receive in the future. This action is unpalatable for the unions, but fighting it is a risky game to play."
The strikers see this view as a simplification of the struggle they're facing. On the one hand, they're faced with the reduced payments into their medical insurance trusts, but in addition they cite the creation of a two-tier wage system within the chain stores as providing a possible back-door attack on employee income.
The simple reason for this concern is that, without due protection for existing workers, there will be nothing to stop shift managers at the stores from simply offering the bulk of the shifts to the new, cheaper workers. The grocery industry is already one of part-time workers, where a full-time job means thirty hours a week, and veterans of the companies are all too certain what will happen if such a two-tier pay system is allowed to bloom.
"Management in any industry are interested in one thing-getting people to work for them for as little as possible," said Collier, the picket boss from Ralphs.
Added Butch, "In eight of 11 of the departments in this store, every last one of the employees is part-time. They are in there for the benefits anyway, and, for example, the new hires will only get $1 more an hour on Sundays, whereas existing employees get double-time. Who do you think is going to get the shifts? Not the "grandfathers,' that's for sure."
Looming in the background of the debate is the Wal-Mart issue. As Wal-Mart gears up for a wholesale launch into California's grocery market, chain stores are faced with potential competition from one of the world's most ardent anti-union employers. Union stores are clearly concerned about the low labor costs achieved by the retail behemoth, especially since their stores will in any case have to compete with Wal-Mart's economies of scale and its immense purchasing power. However, neither Professors Garcia nor Miller believe that the supermarket chains have been forced to take this action by market changes, and Miller argues that the supermarket's concerns are "simply petty in comparison to the workers' case."
Garcia is more pragmatic. "Certainly, the claims by the supermarkets have to be tempered quite a bit," he said. "Besides, even if they are legitimate, they have to show this to the workers.... As with most negotiations, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two sides."
It is precisely this ambiguity however, that has contributed to confusion over this issue in the all-important realm of public opinion. Asking shoppers crossing the picket lines why they have chosen to shop at the chain stores, a common theme emerges in the replies. In the eyes of some, grocery workers have simply had it too good for too long, with the proposed benefits changes coming as an inevitable and legitimate reality check for union employees. While many still see these changes as regrettable, the view that they are reasonable has also been voiced by employees in other economic sectors who wonder what all the fuss is about.
An anonymous letter sent recently by a group of nurses from the Scripps Hospital in La Jolla raised a number of important points. The letters mentioned requirements in the nursing profession of four to five years of college education, with three additional years in the nursing program.
"Not only is our pay only a tad higher than many of the grocery workers," the letter said, "but also we don't get a weekend differential or triple time for holidays. In addition, we must pay heath care benefits for ourselves and our families. And there's a co-pay of $10 per doctor's visit."
Janice Webb, a local registered nurse and union activist with 17 years of experience, also noted that this year was the first time workers' representatives have even been allowed to sit in on discussions about alterations to healthcare provisions in their contracts at the hospital where she works.
Although generally supportive of the grocery workers' cause, Webb was quick to point out that, as far as she sees, grocery workers have been fortunate in enjoying what she called a "very generous" benefits package, noting, "We do go through a lot of education, and some grocery workers get paid nearly as much as us."
Even upon hearing a detailed explanation of the dispute and the proposed changes to the grocery workers' contracts, Webb exclaimed, "Well, they have been very lucky this whole time. I pay about $60 a month into my benefits plan, and that's just for me. It sounds like they will be able to cover their whole family for that! What are they complaining about? We have to pay just as much, and we provide the healthcare!"
Nurses union officials, however, are far less willing to express anything other than wholehearted support for their brothers and sisters battling it out on the picket lines. Chuck Idelson of the California Nurses Association is vehement in his defense of the strikers' position, saying that, in his opinion, health coverage should be provided to every employee in California as a blanket rule. He is adamant that to view the provision of health benefits as linked to, or dependent upon, education, skills or training is an "outrageous" assertion.
"If we're going to make changes, let's make those changes to the healthcare system as a whole, which is in a complete mess, but you can't offer some employees coverage and others not, according to their education-that's simply offensive to me."
Idelson's view was mirrored by representatives of teachers unions. Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association, expressed "total support" for the strikers, agreeing that, in theory at least, anyone working in California should have access to employer-provided healthcare, regardless of education, training or skills.
Pesta admits that while salaries for teachers are not among the highest professional earnings, "teachers do generally get great benefits."
Cynthia Bishop, a fourth-grade teacher in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, agreed. "One of the reasons I chose to teach was the good benefits package I knew I could get," she said.
However, the reasonable wages and good benefits packages enjoyed by most teachers are not without their cost. Teachers must complete at least four to five years of college before going on to teach unpaid as student teachers for another year. To move up their pay scale, they must continue to attend classes, with many teachers going on to complete master's degrees.
The average local teacher, therefore, not only spends several years on a limited income while studying, but must also continue to pay back loans used to finance that study as they progress in their careers. This reciprocal payment for education is an important factor to compare against workers in grocery stores, where workers currently enjoy benefits from day one, despite the vast majority of positions requiring only basic education and minimal qualifications.
Far from begrudging grocery workers in their battle for their benefits, teachers would seem to support them in their fight.
"I'm for them having good benefits and a good quality of living," Bishop said. "If nothing else, the more people that demand a better quality of life, the more likely it is to snowball towards the rest of society."
Bishop's opinion represents one of the chief reasons for the support many people feel for the strikers, even when their own benefits are less substantial or harder won. The grocery workers' dispute has implications for many other unions across a variety of industries and professions.
As Pesta of the teachers union puts it, the UFCW struggle "is our struggle. We will be facing the same fight come next spring."
The contract Pesta and his union negotiated three years ago is up for reevaluation next year, and he is sure health benefits will be on the chopping block.
Professor Miller argues that it is not only teachers who have a vested interest in seeing grocery workers succeed. For him, the strikes are about much more than a simple dispute between workers and their employers-they raise vital questions about the labor market and about the way that America's economy is shaping up.
A recent article in The New York Times made the claim that "The Wal-Martization of the workforce, to which other low-cost, low-pay stores also contribute, threatens to push many Americans into poverty." Miller agrees and stresses that the only measure that should be used to decide if workers' pay and benefits are reasonable is whether that wage is one that the workers can be reasonably expected to live on. As such, he views the role of unions as a vital ethical counterweight to an economy that has steadfastly marched to a conservative beat for the last few decades.
"The right [wing] in America has been so successful in getting the public to agree with a viewpoint that is not in their interests," Miller said, "that the case for mandating the labor market has become stronger and stronger."
As such, the debate cuts to the very core of society. This is not just about a few thousand workers losing out on their benefits, but instead can be seen as a snapshot of Southern California's political and economic makeup. Miller makes the case that many Californians have simply "given up" the struggle against the seemingly unstoppable march of Big Business, so that most workers in this state are simply of the opinion, What can I do?
"In the long run," he said, "it's simply not in anyone's interests to create the sort of economy we are creating."
Butch is very clear about what he can do, and just how he is going to do it. As he looks up with his light brown, weathered face, he pauses for reflection before rolling up his sleeve on his right forearm. Beneath his shirt is a vicious scar."My wife donated a kidney to me, he said. "If it wasn't for my benefits, I would still be on dialysis right now. In the last three years, these chains have tripled their profits each year, and you ask me if I'm going to fight? We're not in this to get anything more than what we think is reasonable, and we know we will have to fight for a little at a time... but they won't break us-no way!"