Evil Grocery Chains
WaPo has an interesting front page story, Grocery Workers Try to Keep the Good Life.
Mitchiner realized that his full-time colleagues at Safeway were earning as much as many of the graduates at his college. So he quit school to work full time at Safeway, a job that provided the middle-class life a college degree had promised. He and his wife, who works at a Virginia computer software company, each earn about $45,000 a year, own a two-bedroom house, two Toyota sedans and send their daughter to a $3,000-a-year parochial school.
“I realized it from the get-go,” Mitchiner said of his job. “This was a good deal.”
But what Mitchiner, now 53 and a cashier, views as a good deal, Safeway and unionized grocery stores across the country regard as a financial burden. Tomorrow, 18,000 Washington area workers at Safeway and Giant Food are to vote on a new jointly negotiated four-year contract that is expected to call for lower wages for new workers and reductions in health benefits, which the companies say they need to remain competitive with nonunion retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. If it is rejected, employees may vote to strike, disrupting business at 350 Giant and Safeway stores in the Washington area.
In less than a decade, the U.S. grocery industry has undergone wrenching changes. Independent regional chains in Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago have been gobbled up by big national and international companies, such as Safeway and Royal Ahold, which bought Giant Food in 1998. Today, grocery chains face a host of competitors, including Wal-Mart, bulk warehouse stores and gourmet food stores.
Consumers themselves, once loyal to their neighborhood supermarket, now shop around more in search of bargain prices and top quality. Even Mitchiner’s wife, Michelle, shops at Wal-Mart. “I can get more for our money,” she says, as her husband buries his face in his hands. Although the companies are proposing that new hires take the biggest hit, they are also asking employees like Mitchiner to accept some benefits cuts. “I resent it,” he said. “I feel I earned these wages and benefits and I started to live accordingly.”
While I can certainly feel for people facing a downgrade in their living standards because of changing market conditions, it’s unclear to me why a supermarket cashier–an entry level job at which full proficiency can be achieved in under a month–should earn wages comparable to a college graduate. Even in the inflated Washington economy, $45,000 a year with good benefits is an exceedingly high cost for work of that skill level. While it’s nice to reward longevity, supermarkets can’t afford to provide middle class lifestyles for 52-year-olds who are still doing jobs that 16-year-olds can master during holidays from school. If supermarket workers want middle class wages, they need to add value and move up into management. Indeed, it’s not unusual for high school kids to become department managers after a couple of summers working in the store.
I would also note the irony that the reporter who wrote the story almost certainly makes far less than $45,000 a year. Writing news stories is a far more challenging task than running a cash register and it’s certainly much harder to get hired by the Washington Post than by Safeway.