Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Safeway and Fry's workers threaten strike: Some thoughts on the coming fight.

Phoenix Insurgent

The Arizona Republic reports that 20,000 Fry's and Safeway employees have voted to enable the strike option in case negotiation with the companies don't result in an agreement. This is great news. The ruling class wages its class war and it's time to fight back. In all likelihood the vote is a bargaining maneuver in the eyes of the union bosses, and workers should expect to get some resistance from their leadership if the rank and file press the strike to move forward.

Basically, the union bosses may have allowed this to move forward for reasons other than actually engaging in a strike. This is how it goes, of course, with them. While the boss is there to exploit you, the union is there to manage you. This becomes clear when strike actions are threatened or take place, and Safeway and Fry's workers should prepare themselves for this sellout by their leadership. At the end of this piece I have some suggestions for workers about to engage in this struggle.

However, before I get into that, some things strike me initially when looking at this story. First of all, when I look at the comments section on the article, never have I seen such reactionism against the efforts of workers fighting to better their conditions. Commenter after commenter expresses downright reactionary positions.

Predictably, the Republic article missed some key points, framing the article in such a way that definitely tends to provoke these anti-working class politics. However, while the Republic piece makes a point of mentioning the health care cost increases that the union is fighting, it is left to Fox News of all places to give us the meat of the matter:
Safeway employees say they have not received a raise in 8 years. For example, an all-purpose clerk makes $7.25 an hour and it would take 10 years to earn $12.05 an hour.

"We want better wages, better pensions and better health care benefits," says Sean Owen, a Fry's worker. "I believe companies turn a profit... we deserve a share in that."

The company is trying to get employees to pay partial payments per week per person for union dues and health insurance.

Safeway owns their own health insurance policies, but the company is attempting to give raises to top employees only.
This broader view contrasts sharply with the Republic's shoddy coverage.

Still, the posts in the comments section of the Republic article are just to the right of Adolf Hitler and represent a general tendency of many workers to replace their class consciousness with the reactionary politics of the capitalist. As such, posters on the thread can be seen roundly and almost universally denouncing the workers in their struggle against the boss.

The first comment, posted by Tom5635 misses the point entirely, but reflects a general failure represented on the thread: "What greedy idiots I pay over 3 times that amount per week. They should be glad to have jobs at all these days. I hope they do go on strike and the stores simply replace them. If they strike I will buy 100% of groceries at Fry's."

Rather than seeing his own exploitation mirrored in and related to that of Safeway and Fry's workers, he denounces them and exalts in the domination of the boss. His position, instead of being one of solidarity, amounts to a rationalization of his own exploited status. "I'm screwed so therefore so should you be" sums up his pathetic position. Tom5635 can't imagine that defending the status of other workers might aid his own fight (by raising the bar and challenging the capitalists).

Paralleling this position is the pro-scab arguments that populate the thread. Says Doug9311, "There are a LOT of people that would gladly take their jobs if the current workers are that unhappy. Where can I apply? Heck, I'll fire off an online app right now !!!" This again reflects the poor development of the class consciousness of the Arizona working class. Likewise, it points to the way that capitalism can use crisis to undermine our solidarity, pitting us against each other. While the reasons why someone may express this position in these economic times are obvious, such opinions must be met firmly with a no-compromise attitude. The struggle of the workers on strike is one that will benefit all workers in the end, and so opportunistic scabs and pro-scab rhetoric cannot be tolerated.

Another tendency common on the thread centered around bourgeois and ruling class "criticisms" of unions as backward, useless or even bad for workers. This is a weak argument that again represents the logic of the boss. A poster going by the name GOLDMENTOR sums this up, "UNIONS S U C K!! They destroy everything and everyone in their path!!!" Various other shades of this argument appeared frequently in the thread.

Are unions bureaucratic? Yes. Are unions in most ways well-integrated into the larger capitalist system of exploitation? Yes. Are unions populated by petty politicos who count on the rank and file for a paycheck? Yes. Are unions another layer of management? Yes.

But what commentators keep getting wrong on this thread is that none of those things means that workers struggle is therefore necessarily invalid or bad. Exactly the opposite, in fact, is true. Because the union is a poor tool for class struggle in the current era means we must look to other tools to supplement our power as workers in struggle, such as workers councils, affinity groups and sabotage, amongst others. The bankrupt and backward nature of many unions means that workers struggle is all that much more important, because we cannot count on the union to protect us. We need to use this information to prepare ourselves so we aren't surprised by the almost inevitable sell-out that will come in the struggle.

The lack of class consciousness, combined with the general right wing libertarian (and therefore pro-capitalist) bent to many Arizonans has left them unable to devise a theory for confronting the boss. Instead, their arguments lead them back into the circular logic of defending the boss' attack on their fellow workers and, inevitably, themselves. That's a guaranteed trip to a forced downsizing vacation if I've ever seen one.

Moving on from the disappointing reaction to the article, I'd now like to make some quick suggestions to any Safeway or Fry's workers that may happen upon the blog. First, PCWC will certainly support any strike, particularly one from which emerge true workers democratic forms, such as workers councils. The sooner workers form councils, or elect their own leadership apart from the union politicians the better.

Further, I would advise them that, rather than strike, what they ought to do is occupy the stores. Lockout the bosses. When you seize the store, they can't do business. Once you have the store, destroy the automatic checkout lines. These are the number one enemy that you have right now. They are being used to undermine the value of your labor and to subvert your power at the shop floor. Further, if you do strike, they will be used against you to keep the store open since managers can keep the checkouts open with reduced labor, and if they can sell, then they can keep making money. The point of a strike is to prevent the boss from making money. This may seem extreme, but as workers we are in a life and death struggle against these capitalist parasites. We should act accordingly as we resist the boss and struggle to make our own lives the way we want them to be.

In your negotiations, be prepared to speak out against your own leadership if they seem to be selling you out (this will be easier to do if you have already elected independent workers councils), and demand that the automatic checkouts be removed from the store. This should be a primary demand. You should not wait for them, however. Dismantle or disable them immediately, if only on the way out of the store as you walkout. You'll be glad you did and any further negotiations can be about whether they will be re-introduced, not whether they will stay. This gives your position power and increases the chance that you will win.

Further, make as many connections to the community as you can. Your struggle needs to be seen as everyone's struggle. Remain isolated and you will fail. Finally, look at other recent struggles and learn their lessons. The more prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will win. Resist reactionary tendencies and demand the most you can possibly imagine for everyone. As you get into the fight, you may find that you struggle not just for yourselves, but for others as well. All power to the imagination! Remember: this is a time of capitalist crisis, which means that while we workers are under attack, it's because the capitalists are weak. They fear us. Concerted action, especially when rooted in broad solidarity (sympathy strikes, anyone? General strike, anyone?) can extract real concessions from them.

I encourage you to consider the role of technology in undermining your power at work. In the computer age, technology represents another pathway through which capitalist power flows and attempts to regulate, re-organize and de-skill us. Incorporate that knowledge into your critique of how power operates at your work. I'm sure once you start looking, you'll find it everywhere. Below I have linked some articles that I have written in the past that you may find useful in your fight.

Good luck and solidarity!

(1) Arizona's ever-watchful eye: moving towards a maximum surveillance and deterrence society

(2) GPS and the attack on worker autonomy and unregulated space

(3) One union wakes up to the threat of technology at work

(4) Taxi drivers strike against techno-tracking!

(5) Wi-Fi's Golden Promise and the Jackboot of the State

(6) The anatomy of a typical article on GPS

(7) Future's Past: Technology and the Class War by Other Means - Revisited


In case you need more proof of the importance of the self-checkouts in this fight (or more proof of the reactionary nature of many Arizonans) check out the short discussion on the Arizona Cardinals fan forum of all places. This should clear up all doubts.

Link below:
Fry's, Safeway Employees May Strike @


Gabe said...

Why on earth would we encourage the workers to take power by demanding that more of their lives be useless and boring? Self-checkout is a step in the right direction!

Phoenix Insurgent said...

The problem is that capitalism will deliver one of two things to a worker replaced by a self-checkout: the anxiety of an unemployment or another boring job. That's the truth. Boredom does not result from the lack of self-checkouts. Indeed, workers do not become workers out of boredom. Taking out self-checkouts returns power to the workers at the point of production and that's why it's an important move in order to win the strike.

Further, recognizing that it's the hand of Capital lurking behind that checkout, not liberation, would be an important advance for a workers movement that doesn't criticize technology. Ending dead times happens when capitalism is destroyed, not when a self-checkout machine gets a worker canned.

Lastly, I believe the practical answer to your question is that workers demand more control over their work and better compensation because they live in capitalism and such things are necessary. The end result of your critique sounds awfully similar to the reactionary shit I've seen on many forums, which basically boils down to "fuck the workers".

Anyhow, post-rev, I can't imagine why there would be any checkouts at all! Destroying the automatic ones is a step towards destroying the others.