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Cleaning up in Aisle 1

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara.

KARL MARX wrote that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” but you don’t have to be a communist to recognize the tragedy of the 2003-04 supermarket strike in Southern California. Nearly 60,000 grocery workers struck for 141 days, and their employers -- Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons -- lost billions of dollars and thousands of shoppers to nonunion competitors. And it could all happen again.

Three years ago, the three big supermarket chains soundly defeated locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Workers’ retirement and health insurance benefits were slashed and a widely scorned two-tier pay scheme -- a higher scale for veterans, a lower one for new hires -- was instituted. Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons contended that they had no other choice but to lower labor costs to remain competitive and hold on to market share if Wal-Mart superstores started sprouting in the Southland.

Although -- thanks to community opposition -- the dreaded Wal-Mart invasion never materialized, the economic logic of another supermarket strike remains compelling. The growth of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, which imitate Wal-Mart’s labor practices, continues, and British retailer Tesco, another low-wage operator, plans to open hundreds of stores here. Competition for shoppers’ dollars will thus remain fierce. So the grocery union seems doomed to another defeat as it vainly tries to defend a shrinking number of high-wage jobs in the food industry.

But wait. On the eve of May Day, a workers’ holiday in many nations, why must trade unionism be a shrinking, always-on-the-defensive institution, destined for a slow and painful death when confronted by the Wal-Marts and Toyotas of our time? After all, the Wagner Act -- whose preamble forcefully asserts the right of workers to form “unions of their own choosing” -- has been on the books for nearly one-third of our republic’s existence. And if one could imagine a unionized Wal-Mart that paid high wages and offered good benefits, then the probability of another supermarket strike would simply evaporate because the downward pressure on wages would cease.

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In the real world, Wal-Mart remains nonunion, but fortunately, shifting political winds may revitalize the trade union movement. This is not only because pro-labor Democrats control Congress and organizations such as the Los Angeles Federation of Labor are good at getting out the vote. It’s also because more and more people now recognize that the distribution of wealth and power in our society is becoming dangerously out of kilter. Even Fortune magazine’s editors, in their celebration of the tremendous profits generated by the nation’s top 500 corporations, noted with some alarm the failure of ordinary workers to reap a fair share of the rewards of recent productivity gains.

Higher wages and benefits would make workers feel more secure about their jobs and ambitious for a better shake, which is why the next few years may be good for union organizing. To that end, Congress will soon boost the minimum wage by more than 30%, and talk of a national healthcare insurance system is in the air.

Most important, the House passed the Employee Free Choice Act. President Bush has vowed to veto the legislation should it reach his desk, but if a Democrat is elected the next president and signs the bill, the first progressive reform of U.S. labor law in decades may give trade unionists a real shot at organizing millions of workers now consigned to union-free purgatory. The act would greatly diminish opportunities for managerial intimidation during organizing campaigns by allowing workers to join a union simply by signing a card. And the act would impose stiff financial penalties on anti-union employers who break the law. This “card check,” as it is known, may be a viable alternative to the employer-dominated elections currently conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

The Employee Free Choice Act makes it easy to imagine a properly designed Wal-Mart on Santa Barbara’s bustling State Street, with its unionized workers receiving decent wages and good healthcare benefits. And if the efficiencies inherent in the Wal-Mart system of selling groceries and merchandise at low prices put the local Ralphs out of business, well, that would be an instance of honest and respectable capitalism at work.

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