Longshoremen’s Union Begins Campaign To Pay Grocery Store Workers’ Medical Expenses, Health Insurance Premiums
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union on Tuesday launched a campaign to raise $1,015,000 to help pay for medical expenses and health insurance premiums for striking grocery workers in Southern California represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports (Crabtree, San Diego Union-Tribune, 1/21). The union will ask its members to contribute extra dues of $25 a month for six months to pay for the initiative (Cleeland, Los Angeles Times, 1/20). About 77% of the grocery store workers lost their health coverage on Jan. 1 and must pay to keep their health insurance active because they did not work enough hours in October to maintain coverage. Workers who are no longer eligible for their health coverage can receive family benefits either by paying $365 for a one-time, three-month extension or by paying about $500 per month to maintain benefits under COBRA for a maximum of 18 or 36 months. About 70,000 UFCW members employed by the grocery stores began a strike in mid-October to protest proposed revisions in their health benefits and other contract issues (California Healthline, 1/13).
The AFL-CIO has agreed to expand unionized grocery store workers' regional campaign against Albertsons, Kroger-owned Ralphs and Safeway-owned Vons into a national campaign, the Union-Tribune reports. The announcement comes 102 days after the strike and lockout began (San Diego Union-Tribune, 1/21). The UFCW has made two unsuccessful attempts to restart negotiations (Los Angeles Times, 1/20). The grocery companies have sought a two-year wage freeze; a requirement that workers pay $780 in annual premiums for family health insurance; a cap on employer contributions to health benefits for workers, which would most likely lead to a decrease in coverage; and a second tier of wages and health benefits for new hires in which employer contributions to health benefits would total about $1,800 per worker per year, compared with about $5,000 per worker per year for current workers under the past contract. The union and the grocery store chains have tried resolving their differences through negotiations with a federal mediator, and an attempt at secret negotiations without a mediator failed earlier this month (California Healthline, 1/13). Richard Trumka, who helped resolve the West Coast Port lockout and is the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, and Ron Judd, who led AFL-CIO protests during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, will lead the new national campaign. Under the new strategy, union members will place pressure on the supermarket chains to resolve the dispute by "hounding" executives and directors with phone calls and visits; staging demonstrations nationwide, including a "pray-in" outside Safeway CEO Steve Burd's home in Northern California; and persuading major stockholders in the grocery store chains to side with the union, the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 1/20). They also will set up informational picket lines at grocery stores in California and elsewhere that are not involved in the strike (San Diego Union-Tribune, 1/21).
- The Washington Post on Tuesday looked at the ongoing grocery store workers' strike, which has "become an important battle for organized labor ... in one of the few remaining industries in which workers with limited education can earn a respectable living with medical benefits." The outcome of the strike is just as critical for the supermarket chains, which say that they "won't be able to withstand the onslaught of nonunion warehouse stores unless workers start paying a portion of their health insurance," the Post reports (Edds, Washington Post, 1/20).
- The Sacramento Bee on Monday examined how the strike is emblematic of a trend in which health care has become "one of the most hotly disputed items in contract negotiations," as employers seek to curb health care costs. The grocery workers' dispute has "become a testing ground for advocates on both sides of the debate over how to cut soaring health costs and reduce the ranks of the uninsured while protecting the quality of medical care," the Bee reports. According to E. Richard Brown, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research, a "dramatic reduction" in the grocery workers' health care benefits could accelerate a trend in which employers are offering fewer benefits, requiring greater employee contributions and dropping coverage altogether, the Bee reports (Mecoy, Sacramento Bee, 1/19).