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New Battleground

Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers the grocery workers strike in Southern California.

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    All through the winter weeks, they've thrown up a gentle, if determined, roadblock — a conscience block: the striking supermarket workers of Southern California — placards at the ready, determination in their faces.

    You could forget in the middle of your hectic life, and pull into a Von's or Ralph's for a stick of butter or a bottle of wine, and there they were, doing their strikers' stroll in front of the store, and you had to pull out again and go somewhere else, or cross a picket line. Some did cross that line; many did not.

  • Strike:

    A word that, to me, almost always spoke of other places, cold industrial places with steel mills and auto factories and packing plants and coal mines; protracted, wrenching, sometimes violent battles between unions and owners that marked the last century, the industrial century; battles that said only if workers stood together, they could win a shot at the American dream.

    And now here we are in the new, post-union technological century. And here is a peaceful, clean- cut-looking strike in my own sunny backyard, and it is easy to overlook what this is: one of the new battlegrounds for the soul of a city, and a country, for that matter.

    The issues are the usual: money, wages. The three supermarket chains in question want to pay new employees substantially less than the roughly $15-$17 an hour senior workers now make, thus instituting a two-tier pay-and-benefits plan. And there are also health care issues, as there always are these days, the markets wanting employees to kick in as much as $750 per year, per person.

    So what I was seeing in those faces, jocular sometimes with camaraderie, was fear. I slowed. I looked closely. A quick stick of butter for me, rent for them, affordable antibiotics for a kid. The wages for these workers had been good enough to keep roof overhead, even buy a house in one of these stretches — in short, to get a toehold in the Southern California middle class — the movie, the mall, the fast food. Yes, the fulfillment of that American dream. And now the bad guys were threatening that.

    But it wasn't — isn't that simple. Who are the bad guys? The chains are fighting for their own survival against one giant company in particular: Wal-Mart, the ever-growing, non-union behemoth that is undercutting retail chains right and left, and becoming the world's discount house and discount employer, essentially forcing their American suppliers overseas, where they can find cheaper and cheaper labor. We have met the global economy, and this, at least in part, is its face.

    So what do we think about all this? Is it OK– capitalism in its purest form? Some say yes, some say no. Whatever you think about it, it's coming to your neighborhood soon, if it isn't there already. It's coming to my neighborhood here in Southern California, closer and closer. And that's why the supermarkets have been scared and dug in, and the strikers have been scared and dug in, and why the scenario seems as elemental and even heartbreaking as those labor battles of old. I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.

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