HOW ORGANIZED LABOR DROPPED THE BALL IN CALIFORNIA

Symmetry of events is wonderful to behold. Last week, the longest supermarket strike ever to occur in this country was settled in Southern California. Also last week, Wal-Mart Stores opened its first supercenter in the state. More are slated. Of course, those events are strike related because Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger sought lower labor costs to compete with the quintessential low-cost operator.Now

Symmetry of events is wonderful to behold. Last week, the longest supermarket strike ever to occur in this country was settled in Southern California. Also last week, Wal-Mart Stores opened its first supercenter in the state. More are slated. Of course, those events are strike related because Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger sought lower labor costs to compete with the quintessential low-cost operator.

Now that the strife is over, let's see what was accomplished and at what price. Much chatter concerning the settlement has centered on the premise that both sides came up short. Supermarkets suffered upwards of $1 billion in unrealized sales, and organized labor achieved little more than what was within grasp prior to the strike and lockout, which began Oct. 11, 2003. (Page 1.)

It's true that any long-duration strike leaves a lot of collateral damage in its wake, but there's more to it than that. There were winners and losers: Supermarket operators won big, and organized labor was roundly defeated. Moreover, although it wasn't entirely clear at the onset, labor was outgunned all along and sent signals to that effect.

The clearest signal that labor has been at sea for awhile is its inability to organize Wal-Mart. If so much as a halting step in that direction had ever been taken, the damaging California strike might have been averted. Indeed, as long ago as Sept. 22, 2003, it was observed in this space that a union local in Southern California had abandoned all pretense of organizing Wal-Mart and would, instead, prevail upon local governmental jurisdictions to mandate that Wal-Mart pay union scale. That tactic is doomed to failure. Even if a jurisdiction here and there did as bade, Wal-Mart can be counted upon to challenge each ordinance and, if it failed to prevail, could build supercenters in adjacent towns. California is a hodgepodge of tiny jurisdictions, so that wouldn't be difficult.

Labor can't organize Wal-Mart, and never will, because of its relative lack of size and power. Wal-Mart is the largest company the world has known. Labor is a loose confederation of locals. Similarly, in the labor matter just settled, the three supermarket companies assumed outsized mass because of their solidarity and their mutual-aid pact that partially indemnified them against effects of disproportionate sales loss. So, might labor unite to achieve greater bulk and clout? Not likely: "Every local is an entity to itself," one union official told SN. "Every local union president is elected. Everyone has different ideas or thoughts." (See SN, Feb. 23, 2004.)

Another signal of weakness labor sent prior to the strike is that there was little mention of wage increases. Instead, labor retreated to a rear-guard action intended to protect the status quo. Even that lackluster prize wasn't won, and a two-tier arrangement was instituted. Supermarket operators were shrewd to accept the deal, given that Wal-Mart won't blanket the state with supercenters for several more years. Workers turn.

None of this can be viewed as an essential good. Low-end wages in many industries are now destined for free fall, and our society will be poorer for it.