Freddy Kroger

Teamsters face a nightmare on 99th Avenue

The Teamsters also lost their seniority. Union guys who had worked in the Fry's warehouse on 59th Avenue for 20 years found themselves lower on the totem pole than non-union guys who have worked in Tolleson for two.

Stalter, 37, drove a pallet jack for seven years at the old Fry's warehouse.

"If I come out here, and there's a guy who worked here for eight years, I'll fall below him, because that's the right thing to do," Stalter says.

Picketers outside the warehouse on 99th Avenue.
Paolo Vescia
Picketers outside the warehouse on 99th Avenue.

"But when I come out here, and there's some guy been here one year, and he gets to pick his work assignments before me, and he gets to pick his vacations before me, I have a problem with that."

So do the Teamsters.

On 13 occasions in six months, Local 104 negotiators met with Kroger, asking for better terms on a long-term contract. The Teamsters came away 0-13 and called a strike.

Then Kroger got crafty.

On September 30 -- two days before the strike hit -- Kroger announced the sale of its Tolleson distribution center to Central Services Integrated, a New Jersey-based subsidiary of Security Capital Industries (stick close to me here; multinational conglomerates are labyrinthine on purpose).

Security Capital Industries, or SCI, handles storage and global distribution for Nike, Xerox and FedEx, among others. SCI is also a major player in the Mexican maquiladora industry -- assembly plants where Mexican workers earn a few dollars a day.

Kroger likes to shuffle the shells of ownership when a labor force gets restless. Six times in recent years, Kroger sold a distribution center, either right after a union contract expired, right before a union went on strike, or both. Three of those seven times -- in Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Roanoke, Virginia -- Kroger's buyer was Security Capital Industries.

Dogging the paper trail is of little interest to Stalter.

"Kroger says, 'You're not on strike against us, now, you're on strike against CSI, who's really SCI, just like Fry's and Fred Meyer's are really Kroger," he said. "So, if you go back to work, you won't be working for Kroger anymore, you'll be working for CSI.

"Well, all we know is we're doin' the same damn job, and the orders are goin' to the same damn place, except now we're getting screwed. It's bullshit. Kroger, SCI, CSI, it's all the same damn people. No one out here is fooled."

The white pickup parked outside the Local 104 office sports matching rear window decals of the ubiquitous winking, pissing Calvin. Only this Calvin isn't relieving himself on a Ford or Chevy logo. He's pissing on the word "Scabs."

Inside the building on 27th Avenue near Buckeye Road, Local 104 president Cliff Davis greets me in a Teamsters shirt bearing the image of a cigar-chomping bulldog in sunglasses. Paws crossed, it stands defiantly in front of a globe.

"It's a Dog Eat Dog world," the shirt says.

At this point in the strike, Davis says, it's hard to tell how acutely Fry's/CSI is feeling the union's bite. Two weeks into the strike, the Teamsters have received no word from their opponents.

"No phone call, nothing," Davis says. "We're not worried. "We have a $1 million strike fund, and we're firmly entrenched in our position."

CSI has overstaffed the Tolleson warehouse with temporary laborers who are earning more than the Teamsters they replaced. CSI and Fry's say there has been no disruption of service. The Teamsters say that's not true.

"Loads are getting to the stores six, seven hours late," says Davis. "It's going to be a cumulative effect. The guys they have in there now can't do the jobs as well as our guys. All we have to do is keep the pressure up."

Last week, the Teamsters distributed 170,000 boycott leaflets in Fry's parking lots, churches, the State Fair and sports events. The fliers show a dragon busting through the front glass of a Fry's store. Terrified shoppers flee the beast's menace.

"We want people to know what the hell's going on," Davis says. "We want them to know it's not their friendly neighborhood Fry's anymore."

Nor has it been since Kroger bought the Fry's chain 18 years ago. Then, if Kroger thought it could profit by laying off Teamsters, it would have. It just took this long before it became economically viable -- from a capitalist pig's perspective -- for Kroger to bust up the union shops and move operations to a non-union shop next door.

But if Local 104's boycott flier seems like a page torn from a 1960s playbook, it's because the Tolleson Teamsters strike is an old-school labor conflict -- a remnant from a time before you could buy an American flag stamped "Made in China."

There are millions of men in Mexico who would weep and thank God for deliverance were they to be hired into the same $13-an-hour job Matthew Stalter walked away from in disgust. Except Kroger wouldn't pay these men $13 an hour. It would pay them whatever it could get away with -- four dollars, maybe three -- so the dragon's horde could grow fatter, and CEO Pichler could speak to stockholders not of soulless exploitation, but "strategic action."

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