Grocery Store Clerks’ Union Files Two Lawsuits To Force Stores To Contribute to Health Fund
The United Food and Commercial Workers union has filed two federal lawsuits on behalf of 70,000 striking grocery workers in Southern California in an attempt to force Safeway's Vons, Albertsons and Kroger to continue making payments into the employees' health care fund, the Los Angeles Times reports (Cleeland, Los Angeles Times, 10/30). Union members at more than 850 grocery stores in Southern California on Oct. 11 went on strike after contract negotiations between the workers and officials from the grocery store chains failed, largely because of disputes over health benefits. Because of economic conditions, rising health care costs and increased competition from nonunion competitors, the grocery store chains have asked employees to pay $5 a week for individual health care coverage and $10 to $15 a week for family coverage. In addition, the grocery stores have proposed that employees pay as much as $75 for prescription drug coverage and that their dental and vision care benefits be terminated. The union opposes changes to their health plans and wants a 50-cent-an-hour raise the first year of the contract and 45-cent raises in each of the following two years (California Healthline, 10/23). Seven Southern California unions earlier this month filed a lawsuit against Albertsons and Ralphs alleging that the companies locked out their employees without giving them proper notice after union members began a strike against Safeway. The lawsuit seeks 60 days' worth of back wages and health care and pension payments (California Healthline, 10/15). Neither side has returned to the negotiating table since the strike began, and no new talks have been scheduled, according to the AP/San Jose Mercury News (Veiga, AP/San Jose Mercury News, 10/30).
According to union attorneys, the grocers made their scheduled $40 million payment into the trust fund that provides the employees health benefits on Oct. 20 but said they would not make November or December payments (Los Angeles Times, 10/30). The UCFW says the grocers are "contractually obligated to continue paying for employees' health care at least through the end of the year" and through March for some workers, according to the AP/San Jose Mercury News (AP/San Jose Mercury News, 10/30). The lawsuits state that the employees worked enough hours before the strike to qualify for coverage through December, and some worked enough hours to qualify for benefits through the end of March. They also state that the fund could go bankrupt by mid-December unless the grocers continue to make their monthly contributions. One of the lawsuits asks the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to force the grocers to contribute to the fund, citing obligations under the labor contract, while the other seeks emergency binding arbitration, citing federal laws on insurance coverage. Stacia Levenfeld, a spokesperson for Albertsons, said the company had not seen the lawsuits and would not comment. Representatives of the other two grocers were unavailable for comment, according to the Times.
In related news, Albertsons is seeking a preliminary injunction in Santa Ana Superior Court to "restrict or eliminate pickets at its stores," the Times reports. A judge turned down a temporary restraining order sought by the chain last week but set a Nov. 12 preliminary hearing to consider an injunction (Los Angeles Times, 10/30).
Knight Ridder/San Luis Obispo Tribune reports that as UCFW members strike over health benefits, about 80 Washington, D.C.-based employees of the union have been told that they will have to pay a larger share of their health care costs under changes being made to the UCFW health plan. According to a newsletter sent this fall to the employees by a unit of the Newspaper Guild -- which represents the union employees -- the proposed increase in prescription drug copayments alone would cost the employees about $275,000, with lower-income employees paying a "disproportionately higher share," Knight Ridder/Tribune reports. The letter also said that some retirees would have to pay more for their premiums -- particularly those with fewer than 20 years of service -- and retiree health benefits "could be taken away entirely" if proposed changes are made, according to the newsletter. Greg Denier, communications director for the UFCW, said it is "unfair to compare" the not-for-profit UCFW to "large, for-profit companies like the supermarket chains," adding that not-for-profit organizations "are not the same as Fortune 500 companies that make billions in profits every year." He said that he could not comment on the specific changes to the UCFW health care plan, but said it "remains affordable" and that "any changes made to cover the UCFW's rising health care and retiree benefit costs would still be far more comprehensive than anything presented by the supermarkets," Knight Ridder/Tribune reports (Rowlands, Knight Ridder/San Luis Obispo Tribune, 10/30).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.