The Guardian October 29, 2003


California: strikes for health care

by Terrie Albano

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, eight and ten, and will have to pay 
US$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 US$7 an hour.

Lucra, Young and Ascencion are three of the 70,000 Southern 
California retail food workers who have been forced onto picket 
lines. Workers at Von' s, which is operated by Safeway Inc, 
walked out, rejecting management's demands for deep cuts to 
health care and pension benefits, a wage freeze and a scheme to 
pay new employees US$2 an hour less.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) had limited the strike 
to one chain "to minimise 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 
on October 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.

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 non-union 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 US$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, autumn 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.

Deli worker 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 
October 14, also over issues of health care costs. The nation's 
third largest mass transit system is shut down as union workers 
honour the mechanics' picket line.

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

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

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People's Weekly World

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