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Look for the Union Label

On strike with Ralphs in California.

11:00 PM, Nov 2, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
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I WALKED A PICKET LINE THE OTHER DAY. I'm not a member of the union that was on strike, and it's not my line of work, anyway. I don't believe I've ever walked a picket line before, although I think I drink enough so that maybe I have and can't remember. (Just kidding. Sort of.) No, I never did. I walked this one, though. It seemed like the right thing to do. So I went there and walked. I'm going to do it again.

I know some of you are checking to see if you accidentally logged onto the Mother Jones Newsletter. You haven't. I'm as big a capitalist as ever, which is to say I think it would be dandy to have a printing press in my game room shooting out sheets of uncut twenties. (Come to think of it, I don't have a game room, although I guess I could build one with all that new dough.)

Sometimes both the Left and the Right in America get too lathered and froth at the mouth and miss the point, and they swing a cudgel when the tap of a teaspoon will do. For example, it's my opinion that the Left is broadly mistaken about our presence in Iraq, and the nature and the threat of radical Islam; they don't seem capable of letting go and reassessing. (At least there's nothing important at stake. Just all of our lives and The Ultimate Conflict Of Everything.)

Similarly, the Right often jerks its knee, too; in particular, on union matters. Too often I've seen conservative pundits nod approvingly when a company "trims the fat" to increase stock value, and while these are admirable goals, the "fat" that's trimmed is, more often than not, a bunch of people trying to earn a living. Okay, maybe you say that's necessary, too, but it seems to me I never heard anyone sigh and reflect on how many lives have just been tossed into a high-speed blender. We correctly heard the screams of torture victims in Iraq, and bombing victims at pizza parlors in Israel, and we correctly slump at the face and name of each American soldier killed, and each crime victim here at home. But we must also see that every time a union takes its members on strike, right or wrong, the curtain goes up on a terrible drama, and the main players are working Americans with families who are scared and have no idea what's going to happen next.

Each fight between management and labor must be taken on its own merits. I think this one is right, so the strikers have my support. Unfortunately, I'm afraid it's going to be a long and bruising battle the workers will ultimately lose. So.

ABOUT A MONTH AGO Ralphs, Albertson's, and Vons--three large supermarket chains here in California--told the union they were taking back something they had already given, health care. They said they'd still pay for the bulk of it, but that costs were so high the workers would have to chip in part of the money, five dollars and change per week for a single employee, fifteen dollars and change per week for a family.

I know, that doesn't sound unreasonable, does it? Costs are high for companies in general, millions of Americans have no insurance at all, and millions more have to pay inflated rates for their own coverage (and it usually stinks, too). In fact, one of the reasons costs keep going up is that companies have to make bulk deals for their workers like this one. All right, you may say, so the supermarket employees will have to chip in a couple of bucks themselves. So? What are they complaining about? It's just a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs a week (as management has said in a very clever newspaper ad).

This is how I see it: It's never, ever in a million years going to wind up being just five bucks a week. After the union caves in and the stores are full again, the company will quietly say, "Oh, you know what? Turns out it's thirty bucks a week and eighty for families." Three months after that it'll double, and so on, but it'll be too late. The world will have moved on, and no one will have a prayer.

Now, a reasonable person might ask, "Why should a company have to pay for health care in the first place?" That's a fair discussion, and I guess any issue is on the table during negotiations, but the main thing to me is that, in this case, it had already been settled. They had given it to them years ago, and they just want to take it away because they think they can. The company is doing very well, and it's not right for them to precipitate the whole thing by saying, "Um, you know that thing you already have? We want it back."

THE STRIKE HAS BEEN ON for about a month with no sign of letting up. On the first day management said, "We are not speaking. That is our only offer." And they haven't, and it is. The first week the public was with the strikers, and all the parking lots looked empty, and cars honked their horns in support as they passed the cheering strikers. The second week, people began to get tired of honking. The third week a few began to cross the line and shop. No one is going hungry in California for lack of places to buy food, and there are plenty of other stores, but I guess it's the same old story: It's just easier to stop caring. The fourth week a little more. This week, too. And the companies are offering some astonishing bargains to lure people in.

Each time we passed and honked, the kids asked why we couldn't go in, so we told them. I said everyone who worked there had gotten something from the company, and the company wants to take it back, and we agreed with the people who worked there, and not going into the store helps them.

There's a more important reason, though, or at least a more personal one. I do most of the shopping for the family. (I don't know how this happened, by the way. I don't even know when it happened, but that's the way it is, and doing the marketing is now as much a part of my job description as taking out the garbage and killing spiders.)

I've been in that Ralphs twice a week for the past ten years, and I know the people who work there. I knew when Mary got married and had her first kid. A nice guy with a mustache named Chris sometimes tells me a joke, and I laugh no matter what it is, and I forgot my wallet a couple of times and the manager smiled and said, "Oh, just bring it on your next visit." Audra recently got promoted. She exchanged some eggs for me once when they were cracked, and we've laughed many times about how easy it is to be forgetful at the end of the day. There's a cashier with the prettiest smile in the world, and I always look for her, and a slightly built lady who's a little disabled, and we chat every time as she bags, and she loves working there very, very much.

Even the ones I've never said a word to I feel I know a little, but it doesn't end there. My wife and kids and I are a Ralphs family in extremis, and we intimately know every store up and down Ventura Boulevard from "Elevator" Ralphs (Vineland) to "Brown" Ralphs (Coldwater) to "Earthquake" Ralphs (Hazeltine) to "Fancy" Ralphs (Encino). We actually have discussions on the weekend about which one we feel like going to. (Some exciting life we lead, eh?)

It's weird, though: I'm so deeply bound to the one down the street from us--"Home Base" Ralphs--that when I go to one of the others, I feel like I'm cheating. I've been there so often I'm still not sure they made the right decision three years ago when they moved the butter. I knew which hours were better to find the right diapers when the kids were little, and I certainly hope to apply that knowledge when I need diapers myself, which I expect in as little as a month.

So the Sunday before last, over coffee I told my wife I was thinking of walking with the strikers, and she kissed me and said, "You're right." (Which is something I wish I had on tape, since it's never happened before. Drat.) So we put the kids in the car and went over. She had to take the older one to a birthday party with a horse, so the little one stayed with me. They gave us sodas and signs, and thanked us, and we walked. My wife came back after the party, and we all walked.

I tried to pretend it was nothing when people drove in and gave us the finger, but I think the kids saw, and they marveled at the eggs that had been thrown and wondered how the yolks dried so fast on the pavement. A science experiment, one of them said. Yeah. There was some cursing from cars, and I decided it was time to take them home to lunch and cartoons. How could people be that angry at strikers? Of course, maybe they're not. Maybe they're that angry at themselves.

I think management is going to win. The MTA mechanics went on strike at the same time (I disagree with that one) and took a lot of attention away from Ralphs. Then the horrible fires hit up and down the state, just a few miles away from everyone, and that tragedy will long eclipse everything else in the press. Time will pass, and more and more people will say, oh, the heck with it, and cross the line. We won't, but that's the way I feel. Eventually, win or lose, the strikers will go back in, and then, I guess, we will, too.

I wonder if that cashier's smile will be the same?

UPDATE: I walked the picket line again yesterday afternoon, this time at a Vons on Laurel Canyon. Two days ago the head of the union pulled all the strikers away from Ralphs to concentrate on the other two chains (Vons and Albertsons). This was a mistake. Management has locked out the union workers, the stores are manned by scabs, and the parking lots are full again of shoppers who know better, but won't face it.

Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.

Correction appended 11/3/03: Due to an editing error, the article originally stated that that Ralphs, Vons, and Albertsons are owned by the same company. They are owned by three separate companies.