Peril in UFCW Strike!

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      
more than locked-out and striking United
Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)
members involved in the West Coast struggle
that idled thousands of grocery workers.
The grim reality is, however, that victory is
unlikely and more tragically, many workers
will never get their jobs back. Consider the
history of the UFCW leadership in struggles
where the International Union caved in with
little more than a whimper, then allowed
scabs to permanently replace long-term,
loyal union members. No one questions the
necessity of this struggle; it is extremely
important to every UFCW union member
in the retail grocery industry in the U. S. and
Most problematic is UFCW leadership
(or lack of it) and their inability to strategize
or to provide leadership. Soon, the question
of their resolve must be raised as well. Well
before negotiations began, UFCW leadership
should have been developing a strategy
to deal with the enemy on a number of
fronts. Coalitions with union and legislative
allies, as well as the shopping public should
have been formed. The UFCW should have
understood the serious threat of the Wal-
Martization of their industry. That threat is
the vehicle driving the powerful coalition
determined to win at any cost. That is not to
say that this struggle was unwinnable; far
from it. You must know your enemy and
where to apply the thousand points of pain it
takes to defeat a determined enemy; and
above all else, you must recognize your
enemy. For years, the UFCW has assumed
those major retail grocers were allies and
that rank and file needs came second. Labor
leaders know there are no “silver bullets” in
labor disputes, as local Teamster leadership
perceived their valiant but poorly timed
efforts when they refused to haul from grocery
warehouses. Thus far, UFCW and
Teamster leaders have engaged a powerful,
well-educated enemy with tactics that have
not worked for decades, if ever. Unfortunately,
they sent their troops into battle nearly
unarmed and with no credible battle plan.
Looking back in UFCW history, UFCW
Local P. 9’s, struggle with Hormel Meats in
Austin, Minnesota, in the 1980s comes to
mind. The fight with Hormel turned into a
major fracas that drew nation-wide support,
support the international union could
not control. Assisting the struggle was independent
labor consultant, Ray Rogers and
his staff at Corporate Campaign, brought
on board by Local P. 9 leadership. The funds
and national support raised by Rogers made
it difficult for the national UFCW to throw
in the towel. In spite of that support and the
hopes of hundreds of thousands of union
supporters, the UFCW cut a deal with
Hormel, took over local P. 9, and replaced
the local leadership.Many dedicated UFCW
members watched in shock as their lifelong
jobs were permanently filled by scabs.
There have been many valiant struggles
by UFCW members, but the results are
nearly all mirror images with rank and file
members suffering the losses. Organizing
attempts by the UFCW have been as feeble
as their efforts to win struggles. Many
UFCW members live with poor wages, little
representation, and unjust working conditions.
The recent gathering of AFL-CIO leaders
on the West Coast may
appear as a gathering of
eagles to desperate striking
workers who have
needed their support since
the beginning and who
deserve it. But even buzzards
gather and soar
before they feast on their
prey. Make no mistake,
“the dog and pony show”
has begun and while the
house of labor makes militant
speeches and engages
in a little street theatre, the
national UFCW is quietly planning an “Exit
Strategy.” That’s what labor calls it when
betrayal is in the works. The movement will
be told through the bureaucratic labor news
about the victory they scored. They “saved
the union,” they will tell us, and they will
spend several years re-writing the history of
their betrayal. But, the truth will burn forever
in the hearts of the members and their
families who suffer the losses.
Recently, mainstream media have been
touting the involvement of Richard Trumka,
Secretary-Treasurer of the National AFLCIO,
suggesting that his leadership will
bring more militant strategies. Nothing
could be farther from the truth. My experience
tells me that the AFL-CIO will spend
some money, make a few seemingly militant
demonstrations, and then Trumka will enter
the negotiations and cut a deal. It will be far
from victory and none will be spared the
losses except the suits in the central offices
of the UFCW and the AFL-CIO.
The examples are endless and not
restricted to the retail food industry. The
Detroit News strike is another example.
After being shamed into a national rally in
Detroit, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
led more than one hundred thousand supporters
through downtown to the biggest
block party in Detroit’s history; no militancy,
no sit-down, and no real effort to win
that struggle. The result was a stunning loss
that allowed scabs to replace most of the
valiant union workers.
The WarZone struggles in Decatur, IL,
that idled more than four thousand working
families at Firestone, Caterpillar, and Staley
is another example. When the AFL-CIO
refused to engage in those struggles under
the feeble leadership of former president
Lane Kirkland, the Staley local loaded up
busses and went to Bal
Harbor, Florida, to challenge
the AFL-CIO. After
Kirkland and his band of
bureaucrats descended on
Decatur a few months
later, it was learned that
Kirkland was not going to
offer any real support for
the Decatur unions. The
Staley local put together a
strategy with the help of
supporters across the
country to indict Kirkland’s
leadership. That
effort culminated in Chicago after protests
from the floor led to Kirkland resigning the
following day. At the 1995 convention in
New York, after Sweeney claimed the throne,
a meeting was set up between local leaders
from the Decatur struggles and top officers
of the new national AFL-CIO leadership
team, which called itself the New Voice.
Included in this meeting was Richard Trumka.
The New Voice leadership promised
massive support for the Decatur struggles,
support that never came. The New Voice
developed laryngitis almost immediately.
President Sweeney was supposed to accompany
the Staley local president to meet
directly with Neil Shaw, CEO of the Staley
parent, Tate&Lyle PLC, in London. Instead,
Sweeney went without the local leader and
cut a deal that betrayed the local union. No
support was ever provided to the Caterpillar
workers or Firestone workers and they were
ultimately forced to work side by side with
scabs, just as the few Staley workers who
returned to their jobs were.
But there was another betrayal suffered
by the Staley workers. In this case it was
their own national organization, the United
Paperworkers’ Industrial Union (UPIU). To
protest that lack of support, Staley workers
on two occasions went to the UPIU’s headquarters
in Nashville and were locked out of
the building by security. Local members
and leaders were brought up on dozens of
bogus charges and most damningly, the
entire membership and most of the local
leadership was evicted from their own
union hall by the same police that gassed
and terrorized them on the picket lines.
Trumka was confronted at a labor forum at
the University of Illinois a few months after
the betrayal in a painful lesson in accountability.
Months later Sweeney was picketed
in Madison, Wisconsin, as a large contingent
of Decatur workers carried a large
black coffin in front of the speakers stand,
signifying the death by betrayal of their
struggle. In a meeting with Sweeney after
the demonstration, Sweeney promised a letter
explaining why he withheld support
from the struggle. That letter never came.
The AFL-CIO secretly, or so they
thought, flew Father Martin Mangan, the
local priest who supported the struggling
workers and was arrested at the gates of Staley,
to Washington in an effort to stop the
protests. When that did not work and
Father Mangan continued his support,
Trumka flew into Decatur unannounced to
the media and met with about 50 plus angry
workers at St James Church, Father Mangan’s
parish. It was a tumultuous meeting
and Trumka was quizzed several times
about breaking his promises. Each time he
responded that the AFL-CIO, a confederation
with which national unions are affiliated,
cannot render support unless it is
requested by the national affiliate. Translation:
the New Voice leadership lied to us in
New York, but only after we played a key
role in their election. Trumka left Decatur
with no credibility.
Knowing this, how would you rate the
chances of humble grocery workers? Once
again, it is time for the big show. How do I
know? I saw the show before; I lived with the
betrayal. I am a former locked-out Staley
worker from the “War Zone,” Decatur, IL.

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