Shrinking the story

Workers mostly missing from news on Albertsons’ closing

I have met many Albertsons workers over the years, first when living in Midtown Sacramento during the early 1980s. My family and I got to know some of these women and men in the occasionally humorous ways that ordinary people do in regularly patronizing businesses.

Here is one example that has lingered in my mind. I recall watching a Caucasian checker at the Albertsons on 23rd and F streets who, while waiting on a young African-American man in front of me buying diapers, blurted out in non-standard dialect: “Got to have those Huggies, homes.”

Looking like a straight-up character from the TV show Mayberry RFD, the grocery worker spoke in the utmost sincerity and spontaneity to this shopper and tickled my funny bone. Talk about customer service!

In ways big and small, Albertsons’ grocery employees here and nationwide define the grocery chain for millions of citizens/shoppers. Imagine my surprise, then, to find these wage earners missing in news reports concerning the recent sale of Albertsons and the buyers’ decision to close dozens of “underperforming” stores.

Why ignore the humans who make a business a viable entity? From my armchair, such a slant is unfair, as it excludes the working-class victims of a Wall Street purchase.

Albertsons’ hourly workers are like you and me, living human beings with dreams, ideas and opinions. Journalism should flesh out the concrete impacts of corporate downsizings on us and them. Begin by including those who do the work, the people who actually make our world what it is.

Reporters who failed to ask what happens to the Albertsons workers at these “underperforming” stores were only the half of it.

Take the official justification for downsizing Albertsons.

In brief, it was the new owners’ decision to improve the corporation’s current return on investment by cutting its operating costs via job cuts.

Every buyer needs a seller. But do you know who sold Albertsons?

It was hard to find that news. The sellers are the Albertsons CEO and his management team.

Their bank accounts are big after selling the grocery chain to a trio of private-equity firms, according to a news release from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Check it out:

• Larry Johnston, Albertsons’ president, chairman and CEO: $105.5 million.

• Robert Dunst, executive vice president of technology and supply chain and the chief technology officer: $16.1 million.

• Paul Gannon, executive vice president for marketing and food operations: $15.5 million.

• John Sims, executive vice president and general counsel: $15.2 million.

• Felicia Thornton, executive vice president and chief financial officer: $17.2 million.

Meanwhile, unionized grocery workers are learning the real meaning of President George W. Bush’s “ownership society”: the unelected few who own what the many need to earn a living rule the marketplace. How is this democracy?

In terms of negotiating for nice wages with benefits, is the leadership of the UFCW able or willing to move beyond the usual labor agreement with a company such as Albertsons? Typically, such a union pact maintains members’ living standards via a business model that owners approve.

This setup is flawed from the start, in part because it privileges a fraction of the workforce, those organized into unions, a minority of us.

A national health-care system (with Uncle Sam paying private doctors and hospitals, like Medicare) would cushion the human harm created by the corporate downsizings rocking Sacramento and other communities. The United States lacks a national health-care program for all of its citizens, and the costs keep rising!

In 2003, the United States spent 15 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care vs. 5 percent in 1960, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Meanwhile, Canada spent 9.9 percent of its GDP on health care in 2003, compared with 5.4 percent in 1960, while providing health-care coverage to all Canadians.

The ill-fated strike by UFCW members in Southern California two years ago, trying to keep the grocery chains from making deep cuts to workers’ health benefits and hourly wages, was a sign of worse things to come. Meanwhile, the crisis for private-sector unions is festering, which biased journalism only worsens.