Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Letter from California-November 11, 2003

From fruit smoothies to goat cheese to organic jalapenos, food gives California a big part of its distinct identity. If you’ve visited, you have probably noticed this. Maybe you ordered a pizza in a restaurant and had to answer three questions for the waiter just to choose the type of crust you wanted. Maybe you were visiting friends or relatives and they offered to steam the milk in your after-dinner coffee. Perhaps you pulled into a roadside diner on a back road somewhere and the special of the day was a Poblano pepper stuffed with cream cheese and bay shrimp. I apologize on behalf of us all for the fuss. I think, though, that all this has to do with the variety and abundance of food that’s grown here combined with the creativity and general hedonism of Californians themselves. As a state, we’re really into food.

About a month ago, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (the union representing grocery store employees) went on strike against the three biggest grocery store chains in Southern California. Suddenly, if you needed to drop in on the way home and pick up a gallon of milk and some fresh bok choy, you had to brave a small army of people carrying picket signs or do without. For most, this means that grocery shopping has become a real problem. Some neighborhoods don’t have a grocery store that’s not surrounded by the formerly friendly faces of the UFCW’s workers, and of course, many people support or at least respect the picket line. So customers are forced to do something else to put food on the table, and while corn dogs and nachos might be a great meal at a ball game, it’s hard to feed a family nutritious, affordable food when all your shopping is done at 7-11.

So how did the fun get started? Who’s to blame for the culinary deprivation? I wouldn’t presume to place blame, but you might want to know a few useful basics. The workers of the UFCW, even they would acknowledge, have a pretty sweet deal. More senior grocery workers make about $20 an hour with a strong benefits program, including health insurance for which they don’t pay anything. According to the Sacramento Bee, most members of the union make about $20,000 in a part-time role and more than $30,000 for full-time work. This is in comparison to grocery workers in other places, including the increasing number of Wal-Marts that sell groceries, where workers make more like $8-10 an hour and don’t have nearly the same generous benefit package.

On the other hand, what the management of these grocery chains has proposed would put an end to the salad days for these workers. They want some key concessions from the union, including a $5-$15 a week contribution to health insurance by current employees and a lower pay scale for new employees. Eventually, this can only lead to making a career as a bag boy a less attractive option. Management says costs for providing health care have doubled, and they don’t have much flexibility on the issue if they are to remain competitive.

What’s interesting is that the UFCW employees tend to stay put. For some reason, the nametags for these employees all seem to mention the number of years each employee has been serving me. For example: “Robert, Shift Manager, Serving You for 16 Years.” I can hardly remember seeing one of these tags with a number that wasn’t in the double digits, and often, they’re more than 20. (Of course, the tags the replacement workers are wearing now just say “Robert” and do not mention that Robert has been “serving you since last Wednesday.”) This must be a sign that people like these jobs, though it translates to a salary of $6-9K a year in South Carolina, hardly a “bastion of middle class incomes” as the Bee characterized it.

No one seems to know where this is going, but you can tell consumers’ patience is running out, as the parking lots in front of the stores slowly get fuller as the weeks go on. Everyone has the right to fight for higher pay or better benefits. That’s the free market. Sometimes, however, these arguments come down to a question of “my money or your money” and eventually someone gives in. It’s tough not to snicker at the “Stop Corporate Greed” signs being carried by the grocery workers, when 20 feet away their comrades are grilling a nice looking piece of meat on a hibachi in the warm autumn California sun. Only here can you fight the evil of Big Business and have a rockin’ barbeque at the same time! I’m comfortable in saying that the Birmingham protestors of the Civil Rights Era, these people are not. With workers already leaving the picket lines at one of the three chains affected and a federal mediator stepping in this week, an end may be in sight.

So I predict that in a few weeks, the competent hands of the professional grocers will be bagging up plenty of spicy mango salsa and shark steaks to their once again happy customers.

Just in time for Christmas dinner.


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