In an escalation of the labor dispute that has engulfed southern California for almost five months, the California Labor Federation this week announced an official boycott of all Safeway stores throughout the state. Safeway is the largest of the three supermarkets at which Southern California workers have been striking for several weeks.
In Berkeley, strike supporters have already been holding Wednesday informational picketing at the city’s only Safeway at Rose Street and Shattuck Avenue for the past few weeks. The Berkeley pickets have been organized by Direct Action to Stop the War and the Labor Committee for Peace and Justice.
Besides supporting the southern California workers, Bay Area strike supporters say they are also preparing for what could be similar union battles when local grocery contracts expire this summer and fall.
According to AFL-CIO spokesperson J.B. Tengco, the boycott will officially start this Saturday when a host of labor unions, community organizations and religious groups begin a campaign to discourage communities from shopping at Safeway stores. Tengco said the statewide action is meant to pressure the three supermarket chains to sign fair contracts for the 70,000 plus workers down south who have been on strike or locked out over proposed contract changes that union representatives say will devastate their health benefits.
Under the current Southern California Safeway contract, employers pay four dollars into a pool to fund health care coverage for every hour a worker is on the job. The new Safeway proposal would cut the payout to $1.35 for new hires. That, workers say, would cause the entire health package to eventually crumble.
“They want to make as much money as possible because health care costs are going through the roof,” said Liz Perlman, from Direct Action to Stop the War.
The boycott will not be Northern California’s first glimpse of the strike. Several months ago a busload of workers came north and set up a picket in front of the Safeway at 51st street and Broadway in Oakland. Follow-up demonstrations and weekly pickets, like the one in Berkeley, have also sprung up in cities around the Bay Area.
“There was a need to do more,” said Perlman. “Safeway and the grocery industry have launched a war.”
Perlman and those supporting the strike say that if Safeway successfully negotiates a contract that forces workers to shoulder more of the health care costs, the trend could spread to other industries.
“Everyone is going to be looking at the standard set by this fight,” said Perlman. She added that support for the picketing has been strong. “People up here [in Berkeley] get it, they understand what is at stake.”
In Berkeley, organizers say at least one third of the shoppers who have come to the store during the picket have turned away. That percentage is expected to escalate now that the action has jumped from informational to a formal boycott.
According to organizers, the pickets around the bay and here in Berkeley will continue regularly until contracts are settled.›