The embittered, violence-marred strike against southern California supermarkets, now in its third week, is a sign of the times on the American labor scene. Like other US industries, large food retailers face a shifting marketplace and new competitors with lower wage costs.
Like other unions, the striking meatcutters and Teamsters are being asked to reverse a long history of steady gains in wages and power for some significant concessions. Some 10,000 meatcutters and 12,000 Teamsters are on strike in southern California, creating empty shelves and reduced services at some 1,000 grocery stores in the nation's largest retail food-marketing region.
Since the walkout began Nov. 5, bargaining talks have been fitful and frustrated. Several truckers have been shot at, two bomb threats proved false, threats that poison had been injected into meat and produce are being investigated, a half-dozen stores were stink-bombed, and some 40 people have been arrested in picket-line confrontations.
Supermarket executives can't claim they are being routed by foreign competition, as the auto and steel industries are, or set on their ears by deregulation, as the airlines have been. In fact, each of the seven chains involved is showing profits.
In many other parts of the country, unions have already made the kinds of concessions that employers are asking for here. In fact, the supermarket industry has been a center for union concessions, according to Daniel Mitchell, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The big grocers have been watching their competitive position steadily erode. The market for food is no longer growing substantially in the US, chiefly because population growth has leveled off. At the same time, convenience stores, large drug and discount stores, fast-food restaurants, and even specialty foods by mail order have grown tremendously.
Where 500 convenience stores sold 0.2 percent of the nation's groceries in 1960, 54,000 sold 7 percent of last year's groceries, says James Stephenson, director of the Food Industry Management program at the University of Southern California. ``That business has come out of the hides of the supermarkets,'' he adds.
A major disadvantage for supermarkets, says Dr. Stephenson, is that they are heavily unionized, while most competing retailers are not. Therefore, supermarket labor costs are higher.
A key goal for the employers here is to establish a ``meat clerk'' job, that pays far less than meat cutters or meat wrappers positions, thereby establishing a second, lower, tier of wages. Other proposals include relaxing the requirement that a journeyman meatcutter be on duty during store hours and creating a new lower wage-level job at warehouses and fuel stations.
David Willauer, a negotiator for the Food Employers Council that is bargaining for the supermarkets, admits markets are not in serious financial trouble. But, he says, ``We're looking ahead.''
To the unions, the employers are making a play for winning back some work-rule control without wanting to pay for it, says Dan Swinton of United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing the meatcutters.
For decades, unions have made steady gains in bargaining with supermarket management. As the wage gap between union and nonunion labor widens Dr. Mitchell notes, ``management will to resist gradually grows.''