Shopping for Justice in California

By Joshua Levine-Grater

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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Just up the street from my home in Pasadena, Calif., there is a Vons supermarket. For the past 10 weeks, I have not shopped there. Instead, I drive by, honk my horn at the workers standing outside with their picket signs and make my way across town to shop at other unionized grocery stores. It is inconvenient, but it is my small contribution to the struggle of the 70,000 grocery workers across Southern California who are fighting for their livelihoods and their families’ futures.

Since October 11, the United Food and Commercial Workers union has been striking against Vons and Pavilion’s stores, divisions of Safeway. In retaliation, two other local supermarket chains that also have contracts with the union, Ralphs, owned by Kroger, and Albertsons, have locked workers out of their stores.

The dispute centers around the supermarkets’ efforts to freeze workers’ wages and slash their health and retirement benefits. Additionally, the companies want to initiate a two-tier wage and benefits system, with new hires doing the same work as current employees but for much lower pay.

The companies complain that high labor costs make it impossible for them to compete effectively with fast-growing, nonunion chains like Wal-Mart. In fact, with their enormous profits they could try to entice consumers without sacrificing ethical business practices and hurting their employees. But these grocery chains live by the cold logic of bottom-line capitalism that now dominates American business.

We Jews should be uncomfortable with this state of affairs. When the biblical ideal of “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — “justice, justice you shall pursue” — is being overwhelmed by “dollar, dollar you shall pursue,” we should cry out. Too few of us do so.

The struggle in Southern California raises questions that should trouble all Americans. What kind of society are we creating when honest and hard-working individuals cannot get by? What does it mean that the fastest growing retailers, chains like Wal-Mart, are driving the salaries and benefits of the retail workforce to the lowest common denominator, rather than raising workers up into the middle class, providing a living wage and treating employees with respect?

I have spoken with many congregants at my synagogue about how the strike has impacted their lives. Most seem to be shopping elsewhere. Indeed, so are many of their neighbors, a reality reflected in the near-empty parking lots and substantial drops in profits at the affected stores. Some of my congregants are joining picket lines. Some are helping the workers with food and moral support. Others have urged friends and co-workers coming to holiday potluck parties not to bring food bought from one of these chains. Californians are responding to the strike in heartening, unexpected ways.

What we have not done is to speak out as a community. We Jews owe that much to our history. Many of the workers walking these picket lines are immigrants, as we were. All are working to make better lives for themselves and their families, as we did.

We once fought the hard battle to make it in America. The labor unions helped lift many of us into the middle class. Is it too much to ask, now that we have for the most part prospered and built a better future for our children, that we remember our roots?

Barely a generation ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, Jews stood naturally with Cesar Chavez as he organized the oppressed farm workers who grow the food we eat. Today, we could and should stand with those who deliver, shelve and bag that food. We could and should raise our voices, demanding that our nation’s economy provide safe workplaces, adequate pensions and health care, and decent wages that let workers feed their families.

America is a wealthy nation, yet we have an entire class of people, growing by the day, who live without health care and without hope of a better future — and they are employed.

The prophets of Israel taught that we should not eat the fruit of the oppressed. Those words still have meaning.

Instead of looking at it as an inconvenience, we should see this grocery strike as a call to stand up to the greed of these chains and work toward creating a more equitable, healthy and compassionate society.

Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.

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