“Ralphs we demand!” screams Rigo Valdez into the megaphone. “Contracts” screams back the crowd.” Despite the yelling and screaming back and forth, the crowd seemed almost upbeat as they marched towards the Ralphs grocery store in downtown Los Angeles. Some danced, some cheered, some shared their stories and their fear of economic insecurity.
The crowd has reason to be worried. Union contracts for the Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons grocery stores have been held up in negotiations since March. At stake for the grocery workers are proposed significant cuts in healthcare benefits. If the contracts go through as they are currently written, workers could potentially lose fifty percent of their paychecks to cover their health care benefits.
As the organizing director for the UFCW local 770 and an advocate for workers rights, Rigo Valdez spent the better part of a month organizing the Los Angeles Grocer’s March. He timed the rally to take place on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 to coincide with the Los Angeles convention the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The UCFW local 770 then joined forces with delegates from the NAACP, store workers and the public at large to protest the potential cut in pay.
Said Valdez, “Peoples lives are changed because they’re coming together to stand up for their rights and for a better life and for benefits that they would otherwise not have either without a union or without working collectively for them.” He went on so say that their goal for the rally was to show Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons that grocery workers in Southern California have the support of their community as well as traditional civil rights groups at a national level.
It is currently estimated that more than 70,000 people’s lives would be impacted by the contract. “It is a form of torture the way the employers hold us out like this,” said John Grant, Secretary Treasurer of the UFCW local 770. “I would probably bet my house that it (the contract) won’t get signed…and it would be, in a sense, almost mutually assured destruction.
The last grocer strike was in 2003-2004. “We had 21 attempted suicides. People lost their homes, their families, their cars, everything. It was economic dislocation,” Grant continued.
The geographic spread of stores and people affected runs from the Mexican border to the Hearst Castle to Mammoth Mountain to the Mohave desert – an estimated 1,000 square miles.
While the rally itself was peaceful, with many members of the community coming out to speak powerfully on the behalf of the grocery workers, including: Reverend Dr. Eric P. Lee of the SCLC greater Los Angeles, Don Cast, Speaker John Perez, State Assembly member Ricardo Lara and Bridie Robers of CLUE-LA, the outcome is still uncertain.
“The community won’t stand for the erosion of any more middle-classed jobs, up to and including if necessary, a strike,” said Grant. Valdez agreed, “If the contract isn’t signed very soon, a strike will be inevitable.”
Voting on a strike is due to take place soon.