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The Grocery Workers’ Fight (February 25, 2004)

Health care. It’s by far the most important issue facing working people, their bosses, their unions and their political leaders, the most important issue facing all Americans.

Many millions need care, but who is to pay for it? Workers, who would have to pay for it out of their often meager paychecks? Employers, who insist their profit margins are too slim for them to pay for workers’ health insurance? Or should it be the US government, which has been extremely reluctant to join the world’s other industrialized nations and pay for the care by taxing all of us to finance it?

Nowhere has the question been raised more urgently than in Southern California, site of a four-month strike and lockout involving some 70,000 supermarket employees. Its outcome will go a very long way toward determining who should pay for health care, and how much.

The hugely profitable multi-billion-dollar corporations that own the markets — Safeway, Albertson’s and Kroger — want workers to pay most of the cost. That’s why they precipitated a strike against Safeway-owned Von’s and Pavilions markets, then locked out workers at Albertson’s and the Kroger-owned Ralph’s markets.

The corporations had joined in a mutual aid pact more than two months earlier, agreeing to share equally in the costs of the strike and lockout that they purposely triggered. The costs so far have included millions of dollars in lost sales, but they see that as a small price to pay if they can break their employees’ union — the United Food and Commercial Workers — and force the employees to pay most of the cost of the health insurance the supermarkets have long provided them.

The corporations refused to budge during negotiations with the union on a contract to replace one that expired in January. And they not only demanded that the bulk of health insurance costs be shifted to employees, but also that their wages remain frozen — even though the workers would henceforth have to pay for health care out of paychecks that average only a little more than $300 a week. What’s more, newly-hired employees would be paid even less, would have to contribute even more for health care than current employees and get even less coverage.

Given the heavy turnover among supermarket workers, and the incentive that would give the markets to replace senior workers, the corporations would end up with a much lower-paid workforce in a few years, and undoubtedly a much weaker union to deal with.

The supermarkets’ millionaire executives plead that they have no choice because of growing competition from giant non-union retailers, particularly Wal-Mart, which pay even less and only rarely provide health insurance or any other benefits.

But don’t you believe it. The supermarkets’ profits have continued to rise steeply — by 91 percent over the past five years — and they alone control 61 percent of the grocery business in Southern California.

In any case, have our economy, our standards and sense of decency plunged so low that Wal-Mart is the model for how to treat workers who are so essential to putting food on our tables, whose work is responsible for their employers’ billions of dollars in profits and their bosses’ millions of dollars in compensation?

Wal-Mart, mind you, pays its workers less than $9 an hour for their average workweeks of 32 hours — less than $15,000 a year — and does not even offer retirement benefits. It does offer health insurance, but to get it employees must pay nearly half the cost. Only about 40 percent can afford to do so and instead must rely on public health services, as do many Wal-Mart retirees. A like number qualify for government food stamp programs and other public assistance.

Should the Southern California supermarket owners win the battle of attrition against their employees and their race to emulate Wal-Mart, it is absolutely certain many other employers in many other places, in retailing and other industries, will try to do the same. Many already are doing so in the face of the ever-escalating costs of the private for-profit health care system.

The owners, however, are facing growing opposition from the AFL-CIO, many of its affiliated unions and others who have rushed to the defense of the employees. They have donated millions of dollars to help the financially-devastated workers pay for the health insurance that employers quit financing in January, buy food and meet other living expenses. Supporters, also including prominent religious and entertainment figures, have been urging shoppers to boycott the struck and locked-out markets.

But though the supermarkets’ parent corporations and other employers can — and should — finance workers’ health care, more obviously is needed.

If we are all to get decent health care, we must all share the cost of providing it. Certainly we should support granting supermarket workers the employer-financed care they need and deserve. But in doing so we should be quite aware of the overwhelming need to shift the increasingly heavy financial burden of health care from individual employers and workers to the government. We need a national health care system.

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