Health care costs spark Calif. strikes

VAN NUYS, Calif. – Daniel Lucra, 19, just wants to keep his health care in case he gets sick or hurt on his job behind the deli counter at Albertson’s, where slippery floors and sharp blades can cause injuries. Cashier Linda Young, who has worked 10 years for Albertson’s, has two kids, 8 and 10, and will have to pay $40 for every doctor visit if the company succeeds in cutting health benefits. “I work for my benefits, that’s it,” says Lupe Ascencion, 21, who bags groceries for $7 an hour.

Lucra, Young and Ascencion are three of the 70,000 Southern California retail food workers forced on the picket lines this week. Workers at Von’s, which is operated by Safeway Inc., walked out last week, rejecting management’s demands for deep cuts to health care and pension benefits, a wage freeze and a scheme to pay new hires $2 hour less. United Food and Commercial Workers had limited the strike to one chain “to minimize inconvenience to customers.” But, Von’s biggest competitors, Albertson’s and Ralph’s, locked out UFCW members as part of a joint negotiating strategy. All workers are covered by the same contract.

Seven UFCW locals filed a lawsuit against Albertson’s and Ralph’s Oct. 14, charging that the lockout amounts to a mass layoff, requiring 60 days notice under a 2002 California law. The suit seeks back pay, health care and pension benefits.

The UFCW workers are feeling the corporate squeeze. According to the union, the giant supermarket corporations which control 60 percent of the Southern California retail food market are using the real challenge of nonunion Wal-Mart as an excuse to gut their union contracts and weaken the union’s strength. Each worker earned 39 percent more profit for the three companies in 2002 compared to 1998, adding a total of $2.7 billion in operating profits, says a UFCW statement.

At the Van Nuys store, with 160 workers locked out, customers were few and far between. The seafood section and Starbucks were closed, fall produce boxes sat in empty aisles, and only three cashiers were on duty – with not much to do.

Shopper Shelly Cosby, accompanied by her young daughter, Joy, said it’s a matter of integrity not to cross a picket line. Another customer, Kay M. Lewis, brought bottles of water to the union workers. “I know them. They’re my friends standing behind the counter. Management could certainly afford to pay for the current health care and pension benefits,” she said.

On the picket line, the young union members talked about going the extra mile to maintain a clean store and help customers. “They come in tired, so you try to present a happy face to try to make their day better,“ said deli worker Lucra. “You give the customers ‘quality’ service,” meat department worker Thomas Powers chimed in.

The youthful work force at the store is also concerned about the older workers’ pensions. Lucra said one of his co-workers is two years away from retirement. “And now they are talking about taking away pensions? That’s not right.”

Across town, bus and train mechanics at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority were forced out on strike Oct. 14, also over issues of health care costs. The nation’s third largest mass transit system is shut down as union workers honor the mechanics’ picket line.

And the struggle over who pays ballooning health care costs is also at the heart of the L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies’ contract battles.

“It’s at the core of every major contract struggle,“ Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University’s labor education research director, told the Los Angeles Times, “And it’s going to be an issue until we see some national solutions.”

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org. Jarvis Tyner and Roberta Wood contributed to this story.

(See related story below)



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‘We’re fighting for everyone’

VAN NUYS, Calif. – Determined, united, militant and optimistic are words that describe the UFCW members locked-out at the Albertson’s supermarket here.

Demonstrating solidarity, Teamsters have refused to cross the picket lines, parking their trucks on the street far from the store. Scabs have to manually unload and move stock from the trucks.

In a dramatic show of militancy, ten workers ran after a truck driven by a scab and surrounded it – virtually stopping it in back of the store. The driver, who refused to give this reporter his name, called for help on his cell phone. During the standoff, the picketers waved their signs and placed them on the truck’s mirrors.

Within minutes a corporate big shot came out, accompanied by the store manager, to announce that the police had been called. The workers returned to the picket line. The big shot flipped over her nametag and refused to talk to a reporter, but the store manager admitted there was nothing illegal about surrounding a truck

These workers – young and old, men and women, Latino, white, Black, Asian and American Indian – are on a righteous mission to save their jobs, health care and pensions, and their families’ well-being.

“This is about democracy,” Daniel Lucra shouted to passing drivers, many honking in solidarity. When one lady yelled, “You’re lucky to even have a job,” he replied, “This is a democracy. I can stand up for my benefits. This isn’t about selfish motives – we’re fighting for everyone.”

The UFCW issued a list of union stores, encouraging shoppers to honor their picket lines. Support actions can be found on www.saveourhealthcare.org.

– Terrie Albano