Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Your Cheatin' Heart: The Story of the Jackson Raley's Strike, Part I

By Michael Israel and David Roddy

 Your cheatin' heart
Will make you weep
You'll cry and cry
And try to sleep
But sleep won't come
The whole night through
Your cheatin' heart
Photo credit Layla Griffin
The parking lot of Raley's supermarket in Jackson, California, was close to empty the evening of November 11, 2012. A thin, twenty-something man held his toddler and danced, whispering to his son the words to “Your Cheatin' Heart” as Hank Williams blasted from the cassette player of an aging Toyota pickup truck parked nearby. The man’s wife, a deli worker for the store, glanced angrily at a family of customers walking calmly passed her picket sign and into the store, where a waiting strike-breaker politely opened the door. The cheerful demeanor of the picket crossers defied Hank's prediction of a guilty conscience playing in the background.

Jackson is the heart of Amador County, a small county at the western foot of the Sierra Nevadas. Amador shares features in common with rural communities across the West: mostly white, Catholic, working class, and Republican. The county is home to the state’s largest Tea Party, and a majority of the county voted in favor of Proposition 32, an anti-union state ballot initiative. Unsurprisingly, the November strike at Raley’s polarized the community, demonstrating at once the optimism of labor's resurgence and the pitfalls facing a revitalized workers movement.

Jackson, California
Despite an often consciously generated veneer of simple, rustic backwardness, Jackson is not immune to the shifting base of modern capitalism; since 2008, disproportionately high unemployment has devastated the labor force of rural California. In October of 2012, Amador had an official unemployment rate of 10.9%, and the neighboring Calaveras County, which supplies much of Jackson's workforce, was 11% unemployed. Unfortunately, these figures represent only the minimum numbers of those out of work, as they do not take into account those who have ceased looking for work or those who are not working enough hours for enough wages to secure a living.

In June, 2012, 81% of the Jackson store employees at Raley's, a privately held company originating from the nearby town of Placerville, voted to strike amidst prolonged negotiations between their union, UFCW, and company executives. Negotiations continued into the fall, with the company refusing to make concessions to the union. On October, the company made their final proposal, which included cuts to retirement and medical benefits, on the premise that the company was financially strained due to competition with non-union retail stores such as Walmart, with its “Neighborhood Market” branded grocery stores opening across northern California in September. When asked to share their books with union negotiators to demonstrate this loss, the store refused, prompting a walkout on November 4. The rank and file who walked shared the unions credulousness at the statement of financial distress. One Jackson deli worker responded to the claim, “...economic hardship? Yes, but no more than any other entity currently. I do feel they were exaggerated.”

Another employee who worked for the company for twenty years stated:

The biggest hot button for me was the risk of losing the union health and welfare benefits for retirees. The second biggest was the risk of [Raley's President and CEO] Mike Teel being in control of our trust fund. If that would have happened we wouldn’t have a trust fund much longer
The behavior of the bosses, the ambitions of the strikers, and the betrayal of the strike-breakers in Jackson is reflective of the prospects of a revived labor movement in Middle America. This series will narrate the history of the strike, and explore the implications of the strike for the future of the movement.

Picketers at the Jackson Raley's.

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