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In my last post, I wrote about Raley’s Supermarkets, a large -and, until quite recently- very successful chain of grocery stores here in Northern California where I live.  Almost daily my newspaper of record, the Sacramento Bee, contains some story about the impending strike threatened by Raley’s employees and whether the chain will be able to survive, strike or no strike.  Raley’s has been a treasured institution here in Sacramento, providing a comfortable middle class existence for thousands of its employees for several decades, so reports of Raley’s struggles is very big news here in Sacramento.

Now things are looking bad for a number of SaveMart employees.  On Friday the Bee reported that SaveMart had demoted 150 senior clerks, cutting their pay from $21.00 an hour to around $16.00 -a devastating five dollar an hour reduction.  These demotions had nothing to do with the clerk’s job performances, but were forced, according to a SaveMart spokesperson, “because of store closures and current economic conditions.”

The Modesto based SaveMart chain arrived here in Sacramento several years ago, taking over the locations of all the Lucky stores when that chain went out of business.  Since I do all the grocery shopping for my family, I was delighted to see a discount supermarket opening near my home, as the closest store to me was Raley’s and their prices overall were higher than most others.

But I soon learned that simply because the word “Save” was in the name, it didn’t necessarily mean I would save money by shopping at SaveMart.  Groceries were costing me quite a bit more when I shopped there than I could get elsewhere, so I soon abandoned SaveMart, just as I had with Raley’s.  It was more cost effective for me to drive a little further, to WalMart or Winco, to do my major grocery shopping.

Like the cashiers at Raley’s, SaveMart employees are considering going on strike, and local Safeway employees, who are also unionized, are watching this stuff very closely because they know they’re next. These union supermarkets simply are no longer able to compete with non-union stores, where grocery prices tend to be sufficiently lower.

Things Change

There was a time when I was doing quite well financially, but those days seem to be largely behind me.  I used to hop on a plane quite frequently, both for business and pleasure, but not anymore.  The last time either I or Connie flew anywhere was in 2007.  Just as I’ve had to cut back on my groceries, I’ve had to cut back on air travel -actually, all travel. We haven’t left the county in five years. (Truthfully, even if I could afford to travel, I would drive or take the train to my destination rather go through an airport and put up with the TSA.)

But just as I can’t just hop on a plane anymore without thinking about it, I can’t just hop in the car and fill my cart down at the most expensive supermarket.  These days I have to think about what it’s going to cost me, and that means driving a little further and shopping at the non-union store.

I’m not union bashing, but I can’t help thinking these grocery clerks, who hope to gain my sympathy by striking, are directing their ire at the wrong people. By all accounts, their employers are already sympathetic to their plight, just as  I and my neighbors are.  A five dollar an hour pay cut must have come as quite a shock to these cashiers, and it will most certainly turn their lives upside down.

But those grocery clerk’s unions earned them those pay increases at a time when the owners of the Supermarket chains were flush with cash.  Today those same chains are experiencing store closures left and right, and could fold completely if people like me continue to choose to shop someplace else.

If the clerks do decide to strike, their picket signs may as well read “Rock Waterman Unfair To Cashiers” because ultimately it is me, and many others like me, who are the reason for the impending cuts in their pay and benefits.  Since I can no longer afford to regularly shop at Raley’s, SaveMart, and Safeway, management of those stores are no longer bringing in the kind of money they need to in order to pay their employees the wages they have become accustomed to.  I wish it wasn’t like this; I wish I could pay my friendly local grocers what they deserve, but unfortunately the reality is I just simply cannot.  I’m not doing so well myself.

It’s the same with the airlines.  I’m not the only American who has stopped providing the money that used to go into the pockets of airline employees.  Millions of other former flyers have been holding back as well.

There was a time when the job of an airline stewardess was considered a glamorous and successful career, but the June 22nd edition of 20/20 reported that “with wages at the bottom of the barrel, working in the flight industry has become a dead-end job.”

How bad is it? Former flight attendant Steven Slater, who gained a bit of notoriety for telling his JetBlue customers to take this job and shove it before grabbing a beer, opening the hatch, and exiting via the emergency chute, reported total earnings of only $9,700.00 in his last full year.  And that was after twenty years in the industry.

Slater can blame his employers for his low wages, and the airlines can blame high fuel prices, but ultimately I’m the real culprit here.  When I stopped giving the airlines my money, the airlines had less money to pay their employees.

All this is by way of pointing out that things change.  I would like to travel, and I would like to support my neighbors who work at my local grocery chains.  But the reality is I can’t.

Sadly, reality is something a lot of people hope to wish away. They want things to continue the same as they always have.  But today’s reality says things won’t. Reality sucks. It truly does.

When intelligent people look around them and see the signs telling them that comfortable amounts of money may not always arrive every week as it had in the past, intelligent people don’t waste their time railing against an employer who is himself in danger of sinking under the waves.  When there is nothing left to do but prepare for the worst, intelligent people buckle down and start preparing.

(Previously by Rock: “Ignoring Reality.”)

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