Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Great Strike Wave of 2011? (Part I)

The recent Verizon strike, which involved 45,000 workers, was the largest labor struggle to hit the U.S. in years. (For a recent update, see here, here, here and here). It is also just the beginning. 62,000 grocery workers in southern California are now on the verge of going on strike.

In April, baggers, checkers and butchers voted to strike against Vons, Albertson’s and Ralph’s. After months of fruitless negotiations, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) are poised to carry out their threat. The corporate chains are so worried that they are advertising for scabs to replace their employees when they walk out (and then get locked out).

The three corporate chains posted profits of $4.5 billion in 2009, while their CEOs made over $10 million each. Yet they are demanding that employees pay more out of pocket for their health insurance, eliminating their HMOs, slashing pension benefits, and abolishing overtime pay, according to the WSWS.

Despite the egregious assault on their members’ pay and benefits, the UCFW leadership has been doing everything in their power to prevent a strike. Ricardo Icaza, President of UFCW local 770, said he thought the days of strikes were in the past, while Mickey Kasparian, President of local 135, said this was not a time when workers should defend their wages and benefits (see the WSWS article).

A strike by this number of workers could be explosive and quickly spread to other sectors, as workers across the country are being squeezed brutally by greedy bosses hoping to take advantage of the weak economy and even weaker unions. If successful, the grocery workers could inject new hope and confidence in the labor movement and facilitate organizing efforts in other industries. However, the union bosses are not to be trusted and will likely undermine workers’ efforts, even to the extent of crushing a strike, should one break out.

Consider the 2003 grocery strike in Southern California, which last for 5 months, before UFCW leadership caved in to corporate demands. During the strike, UFCW leadership pulled workers from the picket line and made little effort to organize solidarity actions, thus weakening their bargaining power and setting them up for failure.

If the grocery workers hope to be successful this time around, they will need solidarity in the form of consumer boycotts, help on the picket line, and solidarity actions by other workers, such as teamsters refusing to make deliveries and long shore workers refusing to load cargo destined for these chains.

A Victory For One Is A Victory For All
Speaking of solidarity and underdogs, foreign exchange students have walked off the job at Hershey, claiming exploitation and abuse. Several hundred foreign students taking part in a special State Department cultural exchange program have gone on strike, claiming their wages don’t even cover the costs of their visas, according to Democracy Now.

The program is supposed to introduce foreign students to the “American Way of Life” in hopes that it will improve U.S. relations with their home countries. They certainly are getting a heavy dose of the “American Way of Life” by being forced to work long hours at low wages under physically abusive conditions. Other students participating in the J-1 visa program have been forced to work in strip clubs, live in overcrowded conditions or accept wages of only $1 per hour, according to Bloomberg Business Week.

They are also getting a good practice at organizing and fighting for justice. Approximately 400 students did a sit-in at Hershey Chocolates last week. Harika Ozer, a Turkish medical student taking part in the strike, was interviewed on Free Speech Radio News. She said that they were not just fighting against their own abusive conditions, but for local workers, who are also being screwed and who will continue to be there fighting for their own working conditions long after the students return home. She also claimed that Hershey was exploiting children in some of its plants. (Listen to the 6:44 minute interview here)

Read more tomorrow in “The Great Strike Wave of 2011 (Part II)

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