The lessons of the King Soopers grocers’ strike

Last month’s strike by 8,000 workers at the King Soopers grocery store in Colorado is an important strategic experiment for the working class. Once again, a powerful strike movement has been isolated and betrayed by pro-business unions, demonstrating the need for new organisations.

Workers at King Soopers, which is owned by the nation’s largest grocery chain, Kroger, voted almost unanimously to strike against poverty wages and a two-tier wage structure that makes them too poor to stand even afford the food they sell. The strike drew huge support from Denver-area working class people, who refused to cross picket lines to shop or hire as scabs, sending the chain’s sales plummeting. at 90%. Workers understood that King Soopers workers were fighting against conditions imposed across the country and even the world.

A pair of customers walk into a King Soopers grocery store Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in southeast Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

But the United Food and Commercial Workers betrayed the strike precisely when it was strongest and forced a sellout deal. From the start, UFCW Local 7 sought to isolate the strike, first by extending the contracts of thousands of Safeway workers whose contracts expired around the same time, then by calling off the strike of King Soopers in Colorado Springs, the state’s second largest state. largest city, without explanation. Ironically, Safeway employees have been forced by their store management to work 14-hour shifts in order to meet the growing demand from King Soopers shoppers refusing to cross the picket line.

On Friday, January 21, UFCW abruptly ended the strike after 10 days and announced that a tentative agreement had been reached. Without giving workers copies of the contract, much less time to study it, the union then forced workers to vote on the agreement on Monday, January 24, at a ratification meeting held in a hard-to-reach location. over a half hour outside of downtown Denver.

The union tried to push it through as quickly as possible because the agreement agreed to virtually all of management’s demands, without even a fig leaf for the workers. The new contract contains starting salaries slightly higher than the new minimum wage in the city of Denver, increases in health care co-premiums and maintains the two-tier salary structure.

Worse still, the contract contains a “favored nation” clause, which the union had dishonestly presented as a “red line” during negotiations. This clause means that, in the event that the UFCW negotiates a contract which is even worse at Albertson’s or Safeway, management has the right to unilaterally impose the terms of this contract at King Soopers. It is possible that this clause will be invoked in the near future, given the announcement of a new tentative agreement at Safeway last week.

The agreement has caused significant anger among workers. But the UFCW’s goal was not to convince them to support the deal, but, having already closed the picket line, to present them with a fait accompli and convince them that there was no point in resisting. In the end, the UFCW says the deal passed but didn’t even give a breakdown of the vote, leading many workers to suspect that the deal was ‘ratified’ by massive voter fraud. .

The emerging conflict between workers and unions

The King Soopers strike is part of a growing working class movement against decades of declining wages and living standards, compounded by rising inflation and the continued spread of COVID-19. Last year there were major strikes by production workers at Hunt’s Point, Warrior Met coal miners, auto workers at Volvo Trucks and John Deere and food production workers at Kelloggs and Nabisco. Less than two full months into 2022, thousands of teachers and students across the country have taken action against the dangerous reopening of schools, and oil refinery workers and BNSF railroad workers are also doing pressure for a strike.

But in each of these struggles, the workers have come up against the intransigence not only of the management but also of the unions, which have done everything to betray the workers. Even as the UFCW betrayed the King Soopers strike last month, the Chicago Teachers Union forced a return to work after actions by city teachers. This month, railroad and oil refinery unions are working to block strikes and keep workers on the job, in the case of BNSF, even enforcing a no-strike injunction issued by a judge of right.

In many cases, these struggles have taken the form of worker rebellions against the union bureaucracy. At Volvo Trucks, John Deere and elsewhere, workers have taken matters into their own hands, forming rank-and-file committees to challenge union betrayals.

Over the past year, the UFCW has called off strike after strike, including among Kroger workers in West Virginia, Arkansas and Texas. The fact that they called a strike at King Soopers speaks to the massive level of opposition among the workers and the UFCW’s fear of losing control of the situation altogether. Nevertheless, forced to call a strike, they sought to limit it in advance to three weeks and to isolate it as much as possible.

But the massive levels of support for the strike meant that their attempts to isolate the strikers and sow an atmosphere of discouragement failed. The breaking point for the union came when walkouts took place at Denver high schools, raising the potential for a broader movement uniting grocery workers’ fight for decent wages and working conditions with the fighting the dangerous reopening of schools on behalf of corporate America. Determined to prevent this from happening, the UFCW fled into the arms of management and accepted all their demands to end the strike.

Grocery stores are just one of countless industries where workers once earned a decent standard of living, but where management, with the help of unions, drove down wages and turned workers into barely better-exploited industrial slaves. Based on a strategy of class compromise and “America First” nationalism, the unions have been utterly unable to respond to the determination of the capitalist ruling class to bolster its profits by rolling back the standard of living of workers in more than a century. Instead, they reacted by openly integrating themselves into the management structure, guaranteeing the financial interests of the union bureaucracy at the expense of the workers.

Now, the Biden administration is looking to take this incestuous corporate relationship to the next level, seeking to enlist unions in an effort to impose some sort of state tutelage over workers to ensure the continued flow of the chains of American supplies.

UFCW is one of the most extreme examples of this process. Despite its membership comprising grocery, retail and food processing workers, among the poorest sections of the American working class, the union controls more than $1 billion in assets, the documents show. of the Ministry of Labour. Local 7 President Kim Cordova alone earns more than $200,000 a year, about six times the grocery store workers she falsely claims to represent.

Unions are no longer “unions” in the real sense of the word – they deliberately operate not to unite workers but to divide them. If the unions, despite decades of betrayals, somehow remained workers’ organizations, they would respond to the biggest movement of the working class in 40 years by organizing a struggle, or at least giving in to mass pressure from below. . But the opposite is the case. The more workers enter the arena, the more unions openly and brazenly oppose them.

The path to follow

The outcome of the strike was not predetermined and the workers were in a position of strength. But victory was impossible as long as control of the strike remained in the hands of bogus “leaders” in the pockets of management. This shows that the workers need a new strategy and new organisations. These organizations are called rank-and-file committees, and they are already being built by workers around the world.

Unlike unions, rank-and-file committees are truly democratic and responsive organizations, controlled not by irresponsible bureaucrats but by the workers themselves. Rank and file committees do not accept the so-called corporate “right” to profits and do not negotiate workers’ most pressing interests behind closed doors. Instead, the committees start with what workers need and call for unity and support from workers across the country and around the world.

To prepare for future struggles, rank-and-file committees must be formed at King Soopers and other major grocery chains. the World Socialist Website stands ready to help the workers build them. For more information, fill out the contact form below.