- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

A few weeks ago, I felt like it was Christmas morning when a polite young man walked through

my kitchen carrying plastic www.peapod.com grocery bags filled with food and paper products that I had ordered online the day before.

At $4.95, the Internet delivery service was a bargain not only because I saved hours out of my hectic schedule, but also because I saved money. It’s hard to buy anything on impulse when you’re browsing Giant’s Web site instead of Giant’s aisles.

The mere thought of all those grocery store aisles, all those grocery store carts, all those grocery store lines, all those parking lots, all that money. Ugh. I get sick to my stomach. Just bring it to me.

Still, in an attempt to shorten my “to-do” list by shopping online, I concededly miss the in-line chats with grocery store cashiers like Roy and Lynette. Even more, I wonder how many hardworking, friendly grocery store cashiers I may be putting out of work. A good many of them are single mothers, like my neighbor Denise, who earn a decent living as unionized workers at Giant and Safeway.

But how many consumers are willing to give up a little convenience or cash to sympathize with the estimated 18,000 local union workers at Safeways and Giants should they fail to reach a settlement on a contract before Tuesday’s strike deadline? We’ll see.

“Do we want to save 5 cents on a can of tomatoes or save a community?” said Chris Garlock, coordinator of the Washington Labor Council’s “Street Heat” mobilization campaign.

Officials at these grocery chains claim they must cut costs by reducing salaries, pensions and benefits — particularly health care premiums — to stay competitive with encroaching discounters.

Is this company line simply “a red herring” as union organizers say?

Neither Giant nor Safeway will go out of business anytime soon since they account for nearly 75 percent of the grocery store market in the metropolitan area, especially within the District’s borders. Besides, Big Box retailers prefer locating their megastores in suburban and rural communities.

Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Washington Metropolitan Council, AFL-CIO, said they have been doing everything to prevent a “disruptive” strike, including limiting the action to Safeway stores where the workers’ contract is about to expire.

It was Giant, which has a current contract, that entered into a pact with Safeway and agreed to lock out their workers too should Safeway workers strike.

“But if it’s a strike they want” … well, you guessed it. We’ll think we’re in California.

Community organizers and local clergymen got involved on behalf of grocery workers, some of whom are their urban parishioners, because they realize the ramifications of this grocery strike go far beyond this region and these workers.

They fear this situation is an example of what could be in store for other workers across the country as local and federal legislation is passed that favors corporations and businesses seeking to reduce costs and raise profits at the expense of everyday workers.

Cutting overtime and providing health care benefits are becoming familiar foes. Does the term “outsourcing” ring any bells?

Remember that saying, “If they come for you [or your job] at night, will they come for me [and my job] in the morning”?

We cannot build or sustain productive communities populated only by those who work at so-called “McJobs” that do not offer livable wages or provide job stability. Should our elected leaders keep offering business breaks, or hold businesses accountable when they do not maintain decent jobs that promote community growth and development?

You can’t purchase property on temporary, unpredictable wages.

But it’s the front-line workers who are always sacrificed on the altar of profits for big corporations. Remember Enron? The average wage earner gets a pink slip while the chief executive gets a million-dollar bonus.

A grocery strike will not only affect workers here, it also will have a negative effect on urban shoppers, especially seniors, who really do not have any option but to shop at the very stores that claim to fear competition.

The Rev. Graylan Hagler and the Rev. Dr. James D. Trent Jr. met yesterday to discuss weekend preparations before the strike. They will pass out leaflets to gain consumers’ support for workers. They will set up transportation accommodations for those who want to honor picket lines but must travel to do so. They will be among the local clergy in churches, mosques and synagogues urging their members to boycott Giant and Safeway.

Mr. Trent said he even will start a food drive for seniors if needed because health care is the No. 1 problem in black communities and workers can ill afford to lose those benefits.

In fact, Mr. Garlock said, it is the health care issue that resonates most with supporters. He has been surprised at the support they are getting. Many sympathizers, who have experienced their own problems with health care benefits and services, can relate personally to the grocery workers.

Just when I finally figured out how to buy groceries with www.peapod.com, I might have to forgo the Internet service for a while.

Better bet I’ll be clicking like crazy this weekend to beat the grocery workers’ strike because you won’t catch me crossing the picket line, even online.

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