By Bob Shimabukuro
It came down to hour 70 (of 72) of their notice to strike, but the United Food and Commercial Workers 21 & 367 and Teamsters 38 announced, at 5 pm October 21, that a tentative agreement with the national grocery chains had been reached. Details of the contract would not be released until union members themselves had the opportunity to review the agreement and vote on it.
That followed the 3-day notice to strike on Friday, and weekend rallies at Westlake Park with an energetic crowd which cheered and honored the grocery workers for standing up for dignity and respect for all workers.
Community groups, public officials and other unions pledged support and willingness to support the workers by not crossing picket lines, helping with the picketing, and food and cash donations.
The strong support from community groups has been present since April and had picked up strength as the grocery chains offered only cutbacks in hours and reduced benefits.
The longer the national grocery chains stalled, the negotiations began to take on the feeling of a grassroots community campaign for developing support for the grocery workers, stressing the issues that all can get behind: Dignity. Family wage. Health care. And most of all, for respect. These are the folks that count. They don’t sit in fancy shielded offices, they deal with the public all the time. Their voice should count.
When I asked organizational leaders, why their organizations support the grocery workers, they all had similar reasons: Some mentioned corporate greed. Others criticized businesses passing on the responsibility of health care from employer to government. Living wage, income inequality, and fairness were also issues. But for the community organizations, individuals and unions supporting the UFCW in their quest for a fair wage and benefits package, the overriding concern was solidarity, that this fight is not only for UFCW and the Teamsters, it is for all of us.
Rich Stolz of One America (organizes in the immigrant and refugee communities):
“At stake are basic notions of respect and fairness around wages, health care and treatment. . .This contract negotiation has become a flash point for the broader fight for all workers struggling for dignity in the workplace.”
Verlene Jones, of A. Philip Randolph Institute (an AFL-CIO affiliate labor union/civil rights organization), put it succinctly: “This fight is everyone’s fight. It’s about corporate greed.”
Tim Harris of Real Change (advocates for the homeless and low wage workers) noted,:
“We understand what it is to be squeezed and economically vulnerable.
“(Our vendors) get that when hourly workers get pushed around for the benefit of shareholders, we all lose right down the line.
“Our vendors have joined solidarity pickets and handed out leaflets to their customers, and are happy to see Real Change stand up for their friends. They don’t see this as someone else’s fight. They see it as their own.”
Steve Lansing, community organizer for UFCW21, commenting on the support, said that the “strong support of the broader community has been very important in the decision of the employers to withdraw a number of (unacceptable) proposals.” He also added that the large community support buoyed workers morale and increased pressure on the employers.
Needless to say, this was an important victory. We still don’t know the terms of the contract, and how difficult and intransigent the national chain grocers were. To use a football analogy, it was fourth and one for them, and we held them off and we got the ball back at about the same line of scrimmage. Or, we intercepted a pass and ran it back for touchdown. Or, they punted and pushed the line of scrimmage back for us. But in all cases, we got the ball back.
The campaign demonstrated that reciprocal partnerships of community and labor can be successful, especially over wages and working conditions, and for respect and dignity for all.
We’ve also seen this happen in the legislative arena, when community organizations and a lot of unions (including UFCW21 and Teamsters), partnered in the successful R-74 (Same Sex Marriage Referendum) campaign.
And I don’t want to forget, there is a small group of community organizations working with labor on the Social Security office consolidation move downtown.
No issue should be too big or too small to tackle. As long as we can find common interests, we can build partnerships. For inevitably, all of our interests end up on the same road. As Verlene Jones said, “This fight is everyone’s fight. It’s about corporate greed.”
I’ll drink to that!