Grocery workers mobilize for health care

HAYWARD, Calif. — Hundreds of northern California grocery workers roared their approval at a press conference here Dec. 8 as California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski pledged the federation’s support for the UFCW locals now in intense and difficult contract talks with Safeway and other grocery giants. Pulaski said the federation will join the workers’ “Boycott Pledge Card” campaign.

The press conference and the rally that preceded it came after two weeks of contentious talks in which Safeway, Albertsons and Krogers made clear they mean to slash workers’ health care. Since the contract affecting some 30,000 workers expired on Sept. 11, the two sides have agreed to extend it for short periods, the latest ending Jan. 15.

“The California Labor Federation is joining with community and interfaith leaders to step in to hold Safeway accountable for the massive health care cuts that they are seeking at the bargaining table,” Pulaski said. “We see no reason to let Safeway and the other large grocers shirk their responsibility and pass such enormous costs onto working families and the taxpayers.”

The Bay Area Coalition of eight UFCW locals announced plans for a Dec. 16 mass day of support in front of 54 area Safeway stores. Dozens of other unions, community and interfaith organizations are joining in the drive to add to the 75,000 pledges consumers have already signed, saying they will honor a boycott or strike if one is called.

“Time and again Safeway has rejected real solutions,” said Judy Goff, head of the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. “They rejected Prop. 72 (to require employers of 50 or more workers to provide health coverage) and stood with Wal-Mart. Now they want to take away health care.”

Goff said the labor movement and supporters have laid the groundwork for adopting stores in Alameda County and elsewhere in northern California if grocery workers have to strike.

While UFCW members are prepared to strike, if necessary, “we’re ready to spend the time needed to win a contract with a good standard of living for us and for those to come,” union spokesperson Ron Lind told the crowd.

“Why can’t we have the same kind of health care our brothers and sisters in Canada have? Let’s start with Safeway!” said Ethel Long-Scott, executive director of the Women’s Economic Agenda Project. Long-Scott called for putting universal, single-payer health care on the nation’s agenda.

The UFCW says the employers’ proposals would also slash retiree health coverage. “After 33 years, I’m eager to retire this spring,” said UFCW Local 870 executive board member Glenn Bright, who started work at Lucky’s (now Albertsons) at age 19. But if the employers’ proposals are implemented, he added, “everything I’ve worked for will go down the drain.”

“The general public doesn’t understand that we already have deductions and co-payments,” said Marla Donati, attending the rally and press conference with Local 870 sisters Diana Mendoza and Angela Willman. Only a quarter of the grocery workers have full time jobs, Donati said, but the cost of health care is the same regardless of hours worked. She also pointed out that “grocery workers haven’t had a pay raise in 10 years.”

The supermarkets claim the solidarity actions planned by the union and its allies have little effect. But at its annual investor conference last week, Safeway said the lingering effects of the southern California strike would cut 20 cents per share from its earnings. The grocery giant had already said it lost nearly $320 million because of the strike.