CLEVELAND - Hundreds rallied in some 45 cities Dec. 15 in a national Day of Action to protest efforts by Rite Aid to slash health coverage for its low-paid clerical and warehouse employees. The actions were organized by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the AFL-CIO, Jobs with Justice and United Students against Sweatshops.
In Cleveland, nearly 50 public officials, union and community activists and Rite Aid workers braved freezing winds at a rally in Public Square.
"A frigid wind is now blowing across the entire country," said Cleveland Councilman Jay Westbrook. "The aim is to take every last dime from the pockets of working people." The City Council, he said, unanimously passed a resolution condemning Rite Aid's announced plans to slash health care when the current contract with the UFCW expires Jan. 1.
"Rite Aid is doing the wrong thing," he said.
State Representative Mike Foley also charged that Rite Aid's actions were part of a broad corporate attack.
"They want to socialize health care," he said, "by forcing workers to go on Medicaid." Foley said he and other state legislators sent a letter of protest to the company.
"They refuse to negotiate," said Tanya Mahoney, a clerk with 13 years at the company. "We gave up wage increases in the past so that we could have health insurance." She said wages are generally between $8 and $9 an hour.
"We try to serve the community and they are trying to take away our rights," she added. "They don't care about the workers any more."
"They never cared about us," said Reatha Tolliver, who has worked for Rite Aid for 20 years. "Each contract they take more away. They are constantly increasing our workload. I work in a high crime area and there is no real security."
Both the UFCW and the ILWU charge that Rite Aid is seeking to pay for serious errors of top management by cutting employee health care costs. Since 2008 the company has had to pay millions to settle charges it sold expired products and violated customer privacy rights. Nonetheless multimillion dollar salaries for top executives have escalated. President and CEO John Standley receives $4.5 million in total compensation, the unions said.
Local 880 has called for a boycott of Rite Aid until the health care issue is resolved. It is calling on customers to move their prescriptions to unionized pharmacies owned by CVS, Giant Eagle and Dave's Supermarkets.
Debbie Kline, director of Cleveland Jobs with Justice, urged people to "friend" Rite Aid's Facebook page and send messages of protest. "They have already censored their wall, but you can add comments," she said.
In Oakland, Calif., chants of "Rite Aid, Rite Aid, you're no good - treat your workers like you should!" rang out through the heart of downtown as dozens of pickets from the ILWU and other area unions and community organizations demonstrated at a Rite Aid store a block from City Hall.
Solidarity with 550 workers at Rite Aid's Lancaster, Calif., warehouse was uppermost in participants' minds as they marched bearing signs calling on Rite Aid to "respect workers, respect our communities."
Two years after the Lancaster workers voted to join the ILWU, they are still negotiating for a first contract and facing heavy pressure from their employer, including efforts to burden the workers with a big increase in health care costs, ILWU International Organizing Director Peter Olney told the pickets.
Calling Oakland "a union town," Mayor-Elect Jean Quan pledged the city's solidarity with the southern California workers' struggles.
A highlight, courtesy of the theatrical union AFTRA-SAG, was a special appearance by Rite Aid CEO Standley, arm-in-arm with Ebenezer Scrooge. After Jacob Marley's ghost intervened, both saw the light and joined the pickets.
A delegation led by ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe then entered the store and presented a petition to a startled-looking manager, who promised to pass it on to company headquarters.
Marilyn Bechtel contributed to this article.
Photo: Workers brave the cold and wind to speak out at Cleveland's rally Dec. 15. (Photo by Debbie Kline)