Today, for the first time since the strike began, I shopped at Ralph’s. I wasn’t going to cross the picket line, but the strikers took the pickets away so that people like me could shop at Ralphs’ and drive a wedge between that company and the other Southland grocery stores.
Yes, to admit my faults, I am rather sympathetic to the workers in this case. My partisanship comes from two fundamental concerns:
* Many companies look to cut headcount and employee salaries as a first resort, because the stock market (incorrectly, in my opinion) responds very positively to such changes; in fact, eliminating _skilled_ employees often brings short-term savings that are, in fact, less than the long-term cost of retraining and retaining a new worker in the same position when growth returns, as it always does.
* While reducing costs to consumers is a good thing, turning formerly well-paying jobs into sources of an income that is only marginal can have a substantial negative effect on society, unless those jobs are replaced by equivalent jobs in other industries.
I’m greatly suspicious that supermarkets is looking to cut blue-collar employee wages before it cuts other operating costs (I understand the markets have been pressuring suppliers for years now). In particular, I’m concerned that white-collar and, especially, senior executive salary costs have not been cut aggressively. While it’s not fair to pick on senior staff only, it is true that, in many cases, a ten or fifteen percent cut in the salary of a director or VP can save the jobs of several blue-collar workers, allowing the market to function well at a lowered cost without driving anybody into poverty.
I’m also concerned that, if these supermarket jobs disappear, a source of good, stable first incomes for people with limited education and second incomes for working-class families may dry up. Now, progress always has its casualties, but let’s make sure that we’re actually progressing here. Many companies seem to think that, by creating a class of employees who can’t afford to shop at the company’s stores, they’re moving forward, when all they’re actually doing is to shrink the ultimate market for the products they sell.
So, with my pro-labor thoughts in my head, I entered the store to see all of the above points in action.
One thing I noticed immediately was the cost of retraining new workers. Now, stocker is not generally thought of as a high-skill position, but I now know there’s an art to staying out of your customer’s way. An art entirely unpracticed by Ralphs’ replacement clerks. Most of the union employees at my Ralphs’ had been there for longer than the three years I’d patronized the establishment, and were good at staying of the main traffic areas; I’d imagine that it takes more than a few months, maybe even years, to understand how to stay away from customers’ paths.
The other real standout was how different the replacement workers were from the strikers. Most of the employees I’d known for three years were in their thirties, forties and fifties; the replacements all looked to be in high school or college. These are the workers supermarkets will attract if salaries drop. Even young people need jobs too, it’s true, but is a job at Ralph’s the right one?