November 14, 2003

Commentary

Unions: Fighting for All Workers

By Domenico Maceri

Five of the richest people in the world are descendants of Sam Walton, founder of the  Wal-Mart empire. Recently it was announced that Wal-Mart hired undocumented workers to do the cleaning in some of their stores. In one case, some undocumented workers had been paid 2 dollars a day, according to a USA article.

The gap between executives at Vons, Albertsons, Ralphs, and their employees is not that huge. However, if the workers  currently on strike at these three Southern California supermarkets lose their fight, they’ll move closer to being paid like Wal-Mart employees.

Striking grocery workers make about five dollars an hour more than those at Wal-Mart ($12 versus $8.50). So why don’t they count their blessings?

Although all the fine print of the negotiations is not totally clear, management has proposed that given the significant increase in healthcare, workers would have to pay part of it. In addition, newly-hired employees would be paid under a different (lower) scale. In essence, the new proposal would create two classes of workers.

Management is right that healthcare costs have risen significantly. Estimates are that it costs twice as much as it did five years ago to provide the same coverage. Since Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons have to compete with stores such as Wal-Mart, which pays much lower wages and benefits to its employees, it makes sense to lower  their costs.

The problem with lowering costs the Wal-Mart way is that it can reduce people’s standard of living down to a level which brings them to the edge of poverty. At Wal-Mart, for example, estimates are that 70% of their employees qualify for food stamps.

Who pays for food stamps and healthcare when employers don’t provide a living wage?

We all do. All the taxpayers. Including the  70,000 strikers. In a  way, the strikers are picketing not simply for their own benefits, but to encourage  non-union companies to pay decent wages and benefits for their workers. If not, we all end up subsidizing employers.

Taxpayers’ subsidies of employers occur not just with Wal-Mart but also with other companies hiring undocumented workers. When companies don’t pay the full cost of their employees, taxpayers end up picking up the tab for their benefits.

The fight to maintain decent wages and benefits for current and future workers in grocery stores deserves everyone’s support. We should not forget that many gains workers have made throughout history have occurred because of unions. Some things people take for granted such as the forty-hour work week, health benefits, sick leave, paid vacation, safety in the workplace, etc., did not come about because of the generosity of corporations.

Corporations are motivated by greed, which may not be all bad, since it does provides opportunities for people to work and services to consumers. But if  corporations are left completely to their own designs, workers would have no protection whatsoever. And corporations do not think twice about moving factories overseas if they can make greater profits. So anytime you buy something made in other countries, you have to translate the purchase in real terms. It  means Americans lost jobs. In many cases, union jobs, which paid decent wages for your friends and neighbors.

Although unions may not be perfect, all workers owe them our gratitude and support. Crossing pickets lines means you support supermarket executives  who make obscene salaries. Larry Johnston, Albertsons’ CEO, makes about 12 million dollars a year. You will probably never see him in your supermarket.

The workers on the picket line are the individuals whose eyes you have to look at when you  buy your groceries. And if executives don’t want to pay for the employees benefits, you, the consumer, eventually end up picking up the tab as a taxpayer.

Wal-Mart has plans to open 40 supercenters in California, megastores which will sell just about everything including groceries. If strikers lose, you’ll see more workers being paid with Wal-Mart’s salary scales. And you, the taxpayer, will have to pay to subsidize Wal-Mart and keep the Waltons the richest people in the world.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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