Friday, January 4, 2013

Your Cheatin' Heart: The Raley's Strike in Jackson, Part III

The Strike-Breakers By Michael Israel and David Roddy

Advertising for strike breakers. Photos credit
Zavi Katzvik
On the first morning of the strike, a casually dressed man left his vehicle on the far end of the parking lot and walked hastily towards the picket line. A striker called to him,
“You’re not shopping are you?”
The man replied, “Nope.”
“We’ll see.”
When questioned, most of the strike-breakers refused to talk about their new job. This lent them an aura of mystery, and the enigma of their presence fostered rumors about their origin. Some claimed they came from the Sacramento or Bay area, but the details were never clear. There were rumors that some came from Bel Air and Food Source grocery stores, both scandalously organized under the UFCW, but again these details were never confirmed. Exceptionally, one woman told us she commuted to Jackson from Fresno, and worked for another grocer in that area. However, she would not name the store, and told the strikers that she would be fired if she did not cross the line.

Picketers speculated that the store directors had arranged for the replacement workers to stay in a hotel across the street, and one of the replacements confirmed that he was staying at a hotel, while refusing to offer any more detail. The subtext of the strikebreakers as foreigners in these rumors (regardless of their authenticity) ostensibly reflects the sense of personal invasion when another person occupies one's daily workplace routine. This in turn benefits the company by giving employees a disciplinary reminder that, as far as the company is concerned, their labor is not, in fact, part of a “loyal family of employees,” as the company website maintains, but rather is a replaceable commodity that they can buy from the lowest bidder. In reality, the strike-breakers were not subject to the usual intake requirements such as a mandatory drug test, were paid twice the hourly entry level wage, and had trouble competently completing jobs they were not thoroughly trained to perform. The exact rationalizations offered by the replacements varied, as one striker put it:
Every scab will tell you a good reason why they crossed, regardless, it is a selfish decision. I find it disrespectful to me and all who held the line that we fight their battles for them. We all have rent, we all have bills, we all have to eat, most of us chose to do what was needed of us and put the needs of many over the needs of a few.
Resignation form given to employees before strike.
Towards the end of the strike, around fifteen employees prematurely left the strike to work along with the strike-breakers, much less than the total of 64% of striking employees crossing the pickets reported by Raley's spokesperson John Segale.

As retail makes profit from selling goods, a successful disruption at “the point of production” must take the dual form of a labor strike and a consumer boycott. In Jackson, this dynamic politicized shopping at Raley's, with consumers either consciously acting against the strikers, or, more insidiously, considering themselves neutral in the labor dispute. One striking deli worker described the former category of strike-shopper's hostility towards the strikers.
These were the people that chewed us out, that flipped us off, walked by us covering their heads then flipped us off when they drove away. They didn’t show us the same respect that we always showed them. I feel astounded by the negativity. One man would come in every day of the strike and would make it known that he supports the Teel family, telling us this as he crossed.
A bakery worker related the ideological rationale of the shoppers.
“Some crossed just because they don’t like unions. You would think they would look at it as a matter of right versus wrong, not just a union versus non-union issue.”
Online, comments below Facebook posts, news articles, and political forum boards presented a common narrative among those bragging about, as one forum member phrased it, “scabbin' it up.” The usual talking points of unions “no longer being useful” after taming the capitalist excesses of the guilded age, of how union workers were “parasites,” a “disease,” or “cancer upon society,” or how the strike was the inevitable result of Obamacare or illegal immigration.

The most common complaint of the politically motivated shopper, however, was not so blatantly partisan. Rather, it was the perception that the striking workers were acting out of their place. In analyzing a sample of 100 negative comments from social media sites, we found the most common adjectives after the auxiliary verbs “should” and “would” were “thankful” and “grateful.” The tacit assumption within the narrative of ungrateful employees is that workers play an essentially passive role within the economy. This lionizes the employer as the true creator of wealth, and ignores the more apparent observation that a surplus of commodified labor benefits an employer by dampening wages. Within this worldview, workers are beholden to their employer and “should be more hard working and humble,” marginalizing the idea that a worker is capable of exerting agency over their labor. Multiple commentators remarked that dissatisfied workers should “find another job,” and one particularly optimistic poster noted that in America they were free to create their own supermarket.

The outlook that workers, choosing employment freely in an open job market with the potential for entrepreneurial transcendence, should then behave gratefully to their employer privileges the position of the employer over the employee. It is therefore unsurprising that the most vehement strike-shoppers openly aligned themselves with the Tea Party movement, composed of a demographic that is, on average, wealthier, older, longer educated, and whiter than the general population; in short, more likely to assume the role of manager or employer than worker. One striker noticed the repeated, jovial shopping visits of Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel CEO Rich Hoffman.
“Rich Hoffman was one that would cross and bad mouth us. Once, bragging about how his employees couldn’t strike.”
The strikers we spoke to were not as surprised by the vindictive partisan shoppers, who may not have otherwise shopped at Raley's, as they were by regular customers crossing their picket-line.
There were customers that surprised me by crossing and shopping. Very disappointing, since the relationships that were built with them were through us. The ones they encountered daily. We knew them, what they bought, their kids, and watched their kids grow...not corporate, who wouldn’t recognize them for anything.

Rather than consciously taking a stand against organized labor, most of the regular customers breaking the strike wore a cloak of neutrality. One editorial in the Mountain Democrat expressed this sentiment eloquently,
As a customer of course I am very concerned as to fairness, but as a customer this is not my fight, and it’s not ethical to harass was shameful to see a striking employee walk right in front of a customer, blocking their entrance into the store.
To entice consumers to cross picket lines, Raley's offered free food. Source.
A commenter on CBS local news website made the point bluntly, “My decision to shop where I want is no business of [a striker] to interfere.” This concept of the neutral consumer exerting their right to shop where they please is more representative of neoliberal dominance in our society than the myopically middle management worldview of the Tea Partisans. The “as a customer this is not my fight” mantra uproots the customer from any community and material interests shared with the strikers, ideologically insulating them from criticism of violating the trust they built with the employees.

This erasure of the class consciousness at the store door from most retail shoppers threatens a revitalized labor movement within the expanding service sector else is a fundamental challenge to revitalizing the labor movement in America.


  1. Glad I didn't see Rich Hoffman when I was on the picket line- I would have told him what a chump he is- don't know how I missed him because I would have liked to get in his face- the other folks from the casino respected our picket line- I guess Rich the jerk didn't get the memo- what an a@@@ hole- he's is a part of that 'good old boy' Jackson mentality.

    I saw a woman who works at DMV cross the line every day, she has a Union job, and her husband has a Union job at the prison- yet they crossed every day, as well as a State Highway worker and his wife who crossed every other day, saying'the Union never did anything for me". Yea, never did anything for you except raise your standard of living, get you health insurance and a decent pension. Assholes, every one of them.

  2. Just want to give my best wishes, and thank you for these very fine articles. Keep the faith.

  3. Nice article! I work for Nob Hill Foods in the bay area, and most of the workers and community where very supportive of our strike. The people of our community where awesome and looked out for the little guy! We are extremely thankful and indebted to them! Other grocery store workers, local bakeries, customers, and even a local news anchorman constantly brought us food and drinks.

    I was shocked with some of the peoples negative actions though... "Something extra workers" where very hostile and erratic toward us, I could tell the company hired them as scabs and spy's. Besides there bad attitudes toward the workers they all had cell phones continually calling someone before the strike. Also, the company hired fake hostile customers to set us up, and start confrontations. To make us look hostile and kick us off the property and send some of us to jail. We caught on pretty fast though to that scam. We quickly saw our owners are just rich, spoiled, bully, babies with no moral and no respect for the workers that helped them build and run their company. We are the backbone of the company.

    THEY wanted this fight, and we gave them one! To this day they still treat us the same. So I guess they want more and did not learn from the first time we took away 50%-75% of their business because of the strike. We wanted to settle this dispute in a peaceful and adult way, but the company does not, and continues to show no respect towards people or workers. -The wealthy continues to try to step on the little guy....

  4. I was on the picket line at Raley's, Watt and Marconi. Great article. We had several union state workers and AT&T workers (their building is right next door to us) cross our picket line Their common reason was, "well, we had to take a cut too". The race to the bottom.