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Why Are California Grocery Workers Threatening to Strike?

For many of the state's grocery workers, wages declined as non-unionized companies like Walmart claimed a bigger portion of the market.
Grocery store

There hasn't been a supermarket strike in California since 2003.

Grocery store workers in parts of California voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike over a union contract this week. Labor leaders with the United Food and Commercial Workers want higher pay and better health care for the thousands of unionized employees who work at Ralphs (whose parent company is Kroger) and Albertsons, which owns Vons and Pavilions—stores that make up about one-fifth of the food retailers in the state.

Seven local UFCW unions voted to authorize a strike on Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles Times. That doesn't mean they will strike, but it could happen if negotiation stalls.

At UFCW Local 770, representing grocery workers in Santa Barbara County, 96 percent of members voted to reject the stores' current contract. "I'm energized to walk into the next round of negotiations armed with the power to take economic action, if necessary, to win this contract—including calling a strike," the local union's president, John Grant, said in a statement on Wednesday.

In central and southern California, around 46,000 unionized employees staff the stores in question—most of them clerks and meat cutters, who say they were offered a wage increase of less than 1 percent this year. It's an increasingly tough job, as the costs of living rises and non-unionized companies like Walmart and Amazon claim a bigger portion of the market.

The California workers contesting their contract are required to earn a minimum of $13.34 for meat cutters and $12.40 for clerks, according to the Times. Nationally, grocery cashiers earn even less, with a median wage of $10.78 in 2018. The low pay and high cost of living means that many can't afford food or rent: In California, around 36 percent of grocery workers rely on some form of public assistance, according to a University of California–Berkeley analysis.

Stopping Shopping

California hasn't seen a supermarket strike since 2003, the Times reports—but the memory of the strike, which lasted almost five months, stuck with many in the state. A 2004 San Diego Union-Tribune story called it the "longest and perhaps most costly grocery labor dispute in U.S. history," costing the companies involved $1.5 billion in sales.

On the other side of the country, the same union behind this vote has seen some more recent success: Workers at Stop & Shop, a chain of supermarkets in New England, went on strike in April of this year after negotiations over a new three-year contract soured. Within the first few days, a Boston data firm found that visits from loyal customers were down 75 percent. The pressure worked: Union leaders secured a contract that kept health care and retirement benefits and provided some wage increases, according to the UFCW's statement.

The UFCW represents workers at chains owned by the parent companies Kroger, Albertsons, and Supervalu (as well as thousands more in other industries, including Toronto Uber drivers, who announced plans to unionize on Thursday). But many of the country's biggest food retailers are not traditional grocery stores, and they're also not unionized: Walmart, which dominates the market, is aggressively anti-union. So are other popular chains, like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Target.

Bigger Stores, Smaller Paychecks

Meanwhile, supermarkets have become increasingly consolidated over the past two decades—a trend that's ramped up even more during the last four years, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. Kroger, the second-biggest grocery seller in the country (trailing well behind Walmart), has acquired several smaller firms; in 2017, Amazon got in the game with its purchase of Whole Foods.

While the industry was growing larger, research suggests conditions worsened for workers: Union rates declined, and employment stagnated. These changes "have produced a dramatic wage decline, with high rates of poverty and hunger among workers in a sector that once enjoyed relatively high wages and unionization rates," Saru Jayaraman, professor and director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC–Berkeley, wrote in a 2014 report on the state's grocery stores (commissioned by the UFCW, among other groups).

And although supermarkets may be losing their battle against giant retailers like Walmart, California labor leaders say they're ready for a fight.