THE HEROIC struggle by supermarket workers in the US, who were on strike or locked out for four and a half months, ended last week. Unfortunately the leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers union ensured the workers suffered a defeat.
Out of the 59,000 involved in the strike, the union leadership only needed 17,000 votes to end the action. The workers accepted a new contract that concedes many of the demands that three of the US's biggest supermarkets wanted. Established workers will be on different pay and benefits to new starters, and it will take longer to move up the scale.
The supermarkets have also begun to eat away at the gains workers have made over health insurance, a key issue in the US. It could have been so different. The strikers had massive public support. The stores lost up to $2 billion worth of business as many shoppers refused to shop in them.
Workers in other trade unions, in particular the Teamsters union, refused to cross picket lines. They helped raise donations of food and money, and joined the strikers outside the stores.
The supermarkets would love to achieve what WalMart has done. It is the US's biggest employer, notorious for low pay, long hours and attacking workers' rights. Thousands of workers, many of them young, female and black, fought to stop that happening.
But the union leadership did not share their determination. They treated the strike as a local dispute in the Southern California area. This isolated the strike to the 860 stores affected by the action, and didn't hit the other 5,670 stores across the US. Rather than building momentum, the union leaders demobilised activity round the strike.
After nearly five months of hardship many of the workers felt they had no choice but to vote for the new contract. But the strike shows that workers are willing to fight back in the heart of the beast.