David Webber

 

On his book The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder: Labor’s Last Best Weapon

Cover Interview of June 04, 2018

A close-up

My book begins with a largely forgotten California strike that took place at Safeway supermarkets in 2003-04. At first glance, the basic arc of that story is a familiar confrontation between a company, Safeway, and a labor union, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (“UFCW”). Shortly after taking over as Safeway CEO, Steven Burd launched a disastrous acquisition campaign, buying up several supermarket chains. When those acquisitions turned sour and the company began bleeding cash, Burd tried to cut worker compensation to plug the gap he created. He took a hardline with workers and their lead negotiator, the UFCW’s Sean Harrigan. After a five-month strike, the company and the union reached an agreement that was highly favorable to the company. Safeway won, it seemed.

But something surprising immediately followed the strike, a development that sits at the core of my book. Several fed-up worker pension funds, including the California Public Employees Retirement System—of which Harrigan was president—launched a shareholder campaign to unseat Burd and replace several of the board members that blindly backed his course of action. The partial success of that unusual shareholder revolt, led by worker funds, is the starting point for my book. I think it anticipates many of the developments with working-class shareholder activism in the ensuing fifteen years, up until today. It also lets a reader compare the costs and benefits of a strike with the costs and benefits of a shareholder campaign, with both having taken place in one setting, over one set of issues, albeit framed in different ways. I think someone who cares about worker issues and economic inequality but knows little about shareholder activism can see its potential in this one episode. The book then follows up the Safeway story with those of the activist generation following Harrigan, which I think refined and improved upon those tactics to further advance worker shareholder power.