by Charles Walker
Editors’ Note—As this is being posted, on December 2, we have reports that the striking workers ratified the proposed contract by roughly 2-to-1. Later on, we expect to have a follow-up article with an overall assessment of the strike.
Early this morning, Teamster negotiators from striking Local Union 439 said that they had reached a tentative agreement with Summit Logistics, probably ending a six-week strike by 1,600 drivers and warehouse workers against both Summit and Safeway, the nation’s second largest grocery chain. Pending a membership meeting and vote, details of the proposed settlement were not disclosed. Reportedly, the proposed deal was reached after marathon bargaining that lasted nearly 18 hours.
It’s not clear if the would-be settlement is tied to the union’s recent shift from a boycott campaign to placing primary pickets at many of Safeway’s locations. However, Safeway had not rushed into court to get a restraining order against what it charged was illegal picketing. Some lawyers speculate that if Safeway had taken legal action, the union’s lawyers then would have been able to get at Safeway’s records, which would establish that Summit was allied with Safeway, and not merely a third-party contractor. In that case, all Safeway unionized properties could be legally picketed.
Strikebreakers from Vance
Safeway/Summit fought the strikers with an estimated 1,500 scabs. Some 250 professional scabs came from out-of-state, provided by the notorious national strikebreaking outfit, Vance International. Vance brags to corporate bosses that it “provides skilled temporary labor and replacement workers during periods of labor unrest…” Vance is headed by former Secret Service operatives and SWAT team coordinators.
Scanty reports indicate that the proposed terms do not address the two main issues that precipitated the strike: unceasing speedup in the warehouse that has resulted in high turnover and injuries; and piecework pay for drivers, a major safety issue, given the area’s congested highways.
Safeway/Summit’s reactions to the strike/boycott are proof positive that the striking union made a dent in Safeway’s operations and sales: The company had obtained two injunctions restricting pickets at the warehouse, and with a judge’s connivance forced the strikers to accept some restrictions on its boycott. The company was caught transporting unrefrigerated perishables in cars and pickups. The state highway police ordered the firm to stop forcing its scab drivers to work more than the legal maximum, and to give the scabs the same drug and alcohol tests required of its unionized workers. Finally, Safeway opened at least two temporary warehouses to receive and distribute merchandise.
Union Expanded Its Picket Lines
By expanding the union’s primary picket lines to the stores, the union wanted to halt or impede the delivery of some products by non-striking Teamster drivers. More than that, the union thought it could also picket and shut down Safeway’s regional bread and milk plants. And the union hoped to get sanction from other Teamster unions to picket distribution warehouses up and down the West Coast. In other words, the union wanted to force Safeway to spend far more money than it had budgeted for the strike, or to settle the strike.
The decision to expand the picketing was made after Safeway/Summit canceled a meeting that Teamsters Local 439 thought could lead to a settlement. Instead, Safeway/Summit made it clear that a settlement at that time would require the strikers to make concessions greater than those rejected by the union only days before. After the union’s lawyer reportedly said that the union could prove that Safeway was allied with Summit Logistics, and that that would protect the union from heavy court-imposed fines, the union’s leaders with the apparent backing of the head of the Teamsters regional umbrella group, decided to escalate the fight. Local 439 told the press, “They (Safeway) are directing their own personnel to unload trucks and they are working directly with Summit on bargaining strategy” (Oakland Tribune, November 30).
Seemingly, the escalation did not have the expected results. Union drivers from Teamster retail local unions that deliver ice cream, bread, beer, soft drinks, and the like refused to enter the stores all right. But then managers drove the trucks in and the products wound up on the shelves anyway. The Safeway bread and milk plants continued normal operations, reportedly because the lawyers for the union at those plants said that that Teamster local wasn’t protected if it respected the strikers’ primary line. Finally, the retail clerks union did not respect the Teamsters primary picketing, nor was there any expectation by the Teamsters that the leaders of the 20,000 retail clerks would do so.
Solidarity from Rest of Labor Was Needed
No doubt the single union local could not prevail over Safeway without widespread solidarity from other workers, unionized or not. How much help the strikers needed from the rest of organized labor is indicated by published reports that Safeway expects profits to rise 15 percent next year, even after budgeting $2 billion to remodel 250 stores and open 85 new locations. In the past two years, the top four national grocery chains, including Safeway, have increased their market share from 25 percent to 43 percent.
One union, the West Coast longshore union, demonstrated the kind of solidarity the strikers needed to win their beef. The ILWU not only donated $10,000 to the local union’s strike fund; it refused to load Safeway’s containers headed for Hawaii. As one strike leader told this writer, “We got more help from the longshoremen than from our own international union, the Teamsters!”