OPINION: An American’s Right To Strike Little More Than Symbolic Dissent
[EDITOR’S NOTE: On Wednesday, Nov. 10th, local union members who work for four major grocery chains in Western Washington voted overwhelmingly – 94 percent in favor – to authorize a strike against their employers – Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer and Albertsons. However, a strike still is not a certainty, and we will update The B-Town Blog as this story develops. Below is an Editorial from our own Nicholas Johnson:]
A strike is hardly an attractive option for anyone. Of course employers lose when their workforce walks out, but so do workers, their families and thousands of customers. Not only are workers forced to forego regular income, join picket lines in the cold and worry about how long it will all last, but inevitably they must face the fact that their employers will not concede. In fact, a union-organized strike in response to a contract dispute has hardly ever yielded significant gains for workers in the United States.
Why? Because: U.S. labor laws water down the tried-and-true tradition of holding production hostage. Today’s union-initiated strikes are little more than symbolic, posing an insignificant threat to employers.
Where they stand
For the past few days grocery workers belonging to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 21 and 81, as well as the Teamsters local 38, have been casting their votes on whether to authorize a strike that would impact several grocery chains in six western Washington counties. For the past nine months union representatives have negotiated the terms of their members’ new contract with Allied Employers, Inc., representing Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway and Albertsons, to no avail. The sticking points are classic: wages, pensions and health care.
Allied Employers, Inc. Vice President Scott Powers said since the economy’s harsh downturn, pension funds have lost about a third of their assets. He also said President Obama’s health care bill has caused medical costs to soar. Yet UFCW Communications Director Tom Geiger said the employers’ health care cost have not gone up in the past five years, largely because of responsible wellness and prevention plans worked into the 2007 contract.
Powers said the result of wounded pension funds and costly health care is that contract funding levels have become nearly impossible to maintain; nevertheless, the employers’ most recent contract proposal aims to make up the difference with $26.3 million added to health care coverage and $25.3 million to pension plans over the next three years, Powers said. Geiger said such additions would under-fund these benefits. He said when all cuts are considered, each employee faces thousands of dollars lost.
“It’s not like we’re saying we can’t pay any of this,” Powers said. “But these losses are going to take a lot of money to address.”
Powers said the employers would likely pitch their best offer soon if only the unions would retake their seats at the negotiating table. Although, Geiger said if the employers can do better, than they ought to stop the barking and start the biting. Powers said he is confident a strike will not take place, while Geiger said a strike is, indeed, a ways off.
“It depends on how the employers respond,” Geiger said. “The ball is in the employers’ court.”
The employers offered up their latest proposal in mid-October, yet the unions have not come forth with a revised contract since August – signaling to Powers that the unions aren’t willing to negotiate, he said. Geiger, however, said the onus falls on the employer anyway. He said since the union membership votes to adopt the contract, it makes more sense that the employers would appeal to the unions.
Lessons from labor’s history
UFCW workers in southern California engaged in a 20-week strike in 2003 and 2004; and while their cause was commendable – protesting Wal-Mart’s effort to undercut other grocers’ prices by hiring young, non-union employees to avoid paying out large benefits packages – their union backing weakened their impact. The supermarkets were able to keep their doors open because the UFCW failed to challenge federal laws denying workers the right to fully shutdown production without facing court injunctions and fines. Effectively, the union chose not to exert labor’s true force for fear of retribution.
Although many believe Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave workers the right to strike, it in fact only guaranteed the right to unionize and bargain collectively. With the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, affectionately regarded as the “slave-labor bill,” any truly effective strike became illegal. As a result, the United States has not seen a strike paralyze its economy with effectiveness comparable to recent strikes in France or even trucking company strikes in Chile prior to the 1973 military coop. Instead, American strikes have become rather predictable, ritualistic and overall, unthreatening.
Where I stand
Despite Powers’ unwillingness to divulge the details of the employers’ contingency plan if UFCW does organize a strike, the time-tested response would be to hire “scabs,” or cheap labor, and wait out the storm. So, workers have a choice: walk out into the cold where even their own unions won’t allow them to hold the country’s largest grocery chains hostage; or leave their unions to reject formally organized labor, as well as their profits-first employers. Choice number two comes complete with creative ways to stick it to greedy grocery chains while simultaneously holding on to sought-after jobs.
Rather than walking out and leaving just enough space for cheap labor to walk in and take your job, workers can show defiance as a group by striking on the job. This entails collectively slowing down production, organizing T-shirt days and mobilizing concerned community members to non-violently protest company executives and board members. Also, workers are wise to reach out to fellow industry workers across the nation for solidarity in the fight against corporations like Kroger, Safeway and SuperValu – all three of whom make up the largest grocery chain owners in the United States.
So, if workers are unhappy with a proposed contract and want to strike, they’re best off ditching the tired, old union model and forging a more effective route that won’t cower to this nation’s slave-labor laws. Until this country legalizes a worker’s right to truly effective striking, creative and unorthodox ways of exerting labor power over employers stands as the only worthy way to demand that business favors people over profits.