Letter from a Communist Grocery Worker

I work for Fred Meyer, which is owned by Kroger, the expanding grocery retail monopoly. The Lakeway location I work at in Bellingham, Washington happens to be the most profitable one in the franchise. But that does not mean it’s immune to the problems that plague the industry. In fact, it’s extremely profitable for a reason.

Have you ever walked into a grocery store and wondered why there were lines growing to the back of the store? Simply put, it’s more profitable for the business to pay a robot to replace the jobs of six people running checkout lanes than it is to pay workers to do it, even if a worker has to constantly intervene to alleviate the limitations of the new technology. The quality of service for the workers and customers is always secondary.

Managers here are reported to have received various bonuses over the years that directly incentivized them to make baffling choices when it comes to directing the real producers of the company’s wealth: the workers. Despite being a unionized store, with slightly higher wages across than is typical for this type of job, the store’s management is directed to balance these wage increases with cuts in our hours worked or by short-staffing us. This, on top of benefits lavished on the uppermost managerial layer when they reduce workers, is why you have to wait in long lines just to buy a loaf of bread.

It’s more profitable to pay a robot to replace the jobs of six people running checkout lanes than it is to pay workers to do it. / Image: pin add. Flickr

Our store has a Safety Committee, a largely employee-driven endeavor, which I used to lead. Its members are paid their normal wage and must carry out their functions with very few resources. There have been reports that the money that doesn’t get spent out of the store’s allotted monthly budget—which is supposed to pay for all the store’s maintenance and safety needs—gets translated into a bonus for upper management. Naturally, this leads to a lot of floundering when it comes to ordering safety materials that our committee deems necessary, paired with constant references to the tight confines of a budget we never get to see for ourselves.

Kroger’s enforcement of its own safety standards is highly selective—they only respect them insofar as they do not interfere with profits—and even use them as a basis to deny us compensation for any on-the-job injuries. For example, if they catch you on video breaking your back without stretching beforehand as recommended, you are held responsible for covering the costs of any medical care that results from an injury!

Despite Kroger coming to an agreement with our union on the terms of our contract, they still direct our store managers to ignore these terms whenever possible. For example, our store has a system for the digital order and pickup of groceries. According to the terms of our contract, only workers who are certified in food handling and safety can perform this labor, even during emergencies. Management working at the behest of corporate, however, pretends this arrangement works differently when faced with big workloads, allowing no limits to orders made this way and saddling those without food handling experience with the crunch.

Understaffing leads to workers being left alone, not only to handle a multi-person workload, but under unsafe conditions. A disgruntled coworker, faced with having to continue working at Fred Meyer after getting a rejection from another company they applied to, suffered a panic attack and fainted. The only reason they were found in a timely manner was because their partner randomly decided to check on them. Otherwise, they would have been left on the floor unconscious behind the counter in a closed register lane.

There’s also meant to be extra compensation for workers taking on this non-contractual work, but my very own payslips show that the bosses honor that commitment about as well as any other they have to myself and my fellow workers.

Virtually everyone here is in agreement that the store is insufficiently staffed. / Image: I-5 Design and Manufacture, Flickr

Virtually everyone here is in agreement that the store is insufficiently staffed, and while we are prohibited from looking at the books ourselves, we know how much money we make for the company, compared to how little trickles back down to us. Our store director, when faced with these complaints and grievances, reportedly exclaimed: “Since when do the workers tell the managers what to do?”

Despite the blatant and repeated violations of the terms of our contract, our union claimed to be unaware of these issues until it held a meeting this past August. UFCW started by advising workers to comply with these violations while grievances were filed, stating that the amount of money they’d be fined would incentivize the company to stop these violations of contract. Instead, Kroger has responded by simply not acknowledging our grievances.

We are met with similarly negative examples of corporate “leadership” everyday. Even if unconsciously, the parasitic incentives the managers are given in the form of “bonuses” brews indignation and a mood of stifled anger in our store. The general response you received when you ask what people like about working here is: “My coworkers. Everything else is shit.” A favorite anecdote we share is how one of our upper managers bruised apples while trying to pretend they knew how to stock them. The sentiment that business operations are set against the workers and the understanding that managers are little more than the agents of our corporate overlords is increasingly common.

Kroger’s executives have very high salaries and maintain high profit margins on business. They infamously gave a raise to CEO Rodney McMullen in 2022, topping up his paltry $18 million salary with another million. Meanwhile, Fred Meyer workers make a median wage of just $28k a year—I personally make around $20k. So, while Kroger raked in $2.2 billion in profits last year from people buying groceries that are more expensive than ever, we workers were compensated at a ratio of 671 employees to a single capitalist parasite who produces nothing of value.

As a communist, I know the ultimate answer doesn’t lie in negotiation with the bosses. We, the workers of this store, are the ones who truly know how to run things. In nearly everything we do, I observe my co-workers easily devise better ways to keep the store running smoothly than management. This, combined with frustration at the capitalist way of doing things, can open up the possibilities for my fellow workers to understand the need for fighting unions, a struggle against corporate domination of our lives,  and eventually, workers’ control as part of the struggle for a socialist revolution.

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