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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."