Sunday, February 29, 2004
Grocery strike: From all appearances the months long grocery strike will soon be over. (Full disclosure: I worked at an Alpha Beta grocery store while I was in high school and was therefore a member of UFCW Local 135.)
After reading numerous articles on the substance of the proposed contract, you can only come to one conclusion: the union lost.
Yes, the union was able to save most of their heatlh benefits and a good portion of their pensions, but to look at the big picture, the union has received a mortal wound that will eventually kill it several years down the road.
The union made a decision to focus its efforts on protecting the benefits of current workers, rather than making sure those same benefits would be available for new hires over the course of the contract.
The union has agreed to a two-tier system where employees doing the exact same job will have different pay and vastly disparate benefits. In three years, when the current contract is up, the union leadership will have some difficulty representing the interests of both groups.
Over the coming three years of the contract, current employees will receive no pay increases, their pension contributions will be cut and in the third year of the contract they will have to contribute to their health coverage.
It's even uglier for the new hires. They've got to work for one year before they get health care coverage -- and two and a half years for their family/dependents. When I worked for the Donrey newspaper group (cheap bastards) it was six months before you got health care coverage. One year? And 30 months for your dependents? Ridiculous.
Some striking workers are rightly angry at the union leadership, contending that this deal was something they could've gotten months ago -- possibly without even a strike. I think they're right. It's difficult to see much in the way of substance that the union got from the strike.
When a company wants to break a union, it often can, unless other, uninvolved unions rally to their support. Truckers unions staged periodic protests, refusing to deliver food to the stores, but it was far to little to bring the companies to heel.
I've only heard one story where a strike actually worked brilliantly for the union, and that was a Donrey-owned paper in Hawaii. The workers went on strike and the company brought in editors and reporters from other papers to put out the Hawaii paper. It worked fine for the company until the next shipment of newsprint came in from the mainland. That's when the dock workers -- also unionized -- refused to unload the newsprint.
The company discovered that it didn't matter if you had editors and reporters if you didn't have paper to run through the presses.
The days of being able to make grocery clerk a career and support a family are coming to a close.
The union lost.