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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