November 26, 2003

Unions Losing Ground Over Health Care

By John Earl


Rachel Walters is among 71,000 Southern California grocery workers who are either on strike or locked out at Albertson’s, Ralphs and Vons supermarkets as they fight to keep company-paid health care, the best and often only reason for putting up with erratic part-time hours and low wages.

If the nationwide supermarket chains get the 50 percent cut in health benefits they now want, Walters says, the cost of employee premiums for family care will shoot up from $0 to $95 per week over three years. Walters says she will have to pay at least $700 per month for medication to treat her multiple sclerosis, which she says would make it pointless to continue working as a Vons grocery clerk.

“It’s not worth it to me to work only part-time hours so that I have to scrounge for the rest of the money for my health care,” she says.

Walter’s departure wouldn’t bother supermarket owners, however, because the purpose of another one of their contract proposals — a two-tiered wage system — is to gradually weed out experienced and union-savvy workers like her and replace them with much lower-paid workers who will have even fewer health benefits.

Strikes or threats of strikes against the grocery store chains, also over the issue of heath care, have also occurred recently in Oregon, Arizona, Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana and parts of Canada.

Walter’s situation exposes one of corporate America’s most successful union-busting strategies since Congress gave it the Taft-Hartly Act in 1947: draining the limited resources of unions with entrenched battles over health benefits in order to win concessions on wages, pensions and job security. As long as Americans and their unions remain addicted to a for-profit health care system with its skyrocketing premiums and co-payments, corporate employers will maintain the upper hand in future contract negotiations.

As Greg Congers, president of UFCW Local 324, representing 25,000 grocery workers in and around Orange County pointed out recently on a Los Angeles radio talk show, “Until politicians get the guts to ... discuss this incredible problem of 44 million Americans who have no health care coverage at all ... these kinds of (union-busting) things are going to be happening to union members across the country.”

A little over a half-century ago, most union leaders supported a single-payer system that would provide quality and affordable health care for all, while freeing up union resources to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. But any chance for a tax based single-payer health care system was squelched by a corporate backlash against a surge in union membership from 1932 to 1947 and accompanying social reforms. Fearful of Red-baiting cries of “creeping socialism” that came with the Cold War, labor leaders and their Democratic Party allies dropped single-payer health care like a hot Commie potato and have been loyal to company-provided health benefits ever since.

By 1980 that loyalty resulted in an inflationary whirlwind of health care costs way out of proportion to inflationary trends. It also split workers into two factions: those who had health care and those who did not, a division that corporations, including the supermarket chains, have adroitly exploited.

After the start of the strikes and lockout on Oct. 11, the supermarket chains quickly published full-page advertisements in major Southern California newspapers that implied to thousands of regular customers now honoring picket lines that greedy grocery workers were to blame for their shopping inconveniences. The supermarkets, the ads said, were “more than fair” to ask their employees, who make “as much as $17.90 an hour,” to “pay a very small portion of their own health care coverage” so that “skyrocketing” costs won’t be passed on to customers.

The ads were deceitful. Most grocery clerks are part-timers working for about $13 an hour and the supermarket chains’ drastic cuts in health benefits and other regressive contract proposals weren’t mentioned. But the recent decision of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union to redirect picket lines from Ralphs to other stores reflects the employers’ ability to use our for-profit health system to gradually erode public support for the union and wear down strikers, many of whom have left picket lines for other work due to lost wages and forthcoming cancellation of their health benefits.

Universal single-payer health care would take away that corporate sledgehammer, unite all workers, fortify their right to organize and increase union bargaining power. A recent ABC-Washington Post poll shows that a majority of Americans support single-payer heath care. With presidential elections coming, there is no better time to push for it than now.

But instead of organizing union members to fight for real health care reform, most union leaders continue to waste precious resources on Democratic Party presidential candidates tied to special interests. Their costly “universal” health care schemes not only aren’t universal but also would enrich insurance providers and increase America’s dependency upon them.

It’s time for rank and file union members to steer organized labor away from continued self-destruction.

Earl ( is a freelance writer and union organizer and reformer.

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