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Living in La-La Land

October 30, 2003
Related Topics: Health and Wellness, Labor Relations, Featured Article

Along with thousands of other Californians, I’ve been learning to live with less-than-super marketing in the last few weeks. There are Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons galore, but I have been heading for Trader Joe’s and Bristol Farms, two specialty markets that are not ringed with strikers.

    The aisles in those stores have been clogged with disoriented shoppers. They’re used to buying cheese, wine and goodies like boudin sausage in these markets, not cat litter and kids’ cereal. The checkers look dazed, too. They have been pulling double shifts since October 11 and coping with the slightly cranky customers whose routines have been disrupted by the walkout of 70,000 supermarket employees. I don’t know what motivates other people to honor the picket lines. California is not well known for collective action (if you don’t count recalling the governor). I only know why I’m staying out of the stores: Dad.

    My late father was a treater at an oil refinery and lifelong member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. He was no Joe Hill, but he did walk picket lines when necessary. And I swear I can hear him rattling the change in his pocket--a sign he was perturbed with me--when I think about running into a Ralphs to grab the low-calorie enchiladas I can find only there.

    Dad is my only reason. I am not in solidarity with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and its members. They are living in la-la land when it comes to health benefits.

    The grocery workers have an enviable package--calling it a Cadillac is an understatement. They pay no premiums for family health insurance, and that puts them in a tiny minority: only 4 percent of large employers pick up the whole tab, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2003 study of employer health benefits. The average American worker pays $2,412 in family-coverage premiums--about 27 percent of the total cost.

    The supermarkets proposed that union employees pay $260 a year for single employee-only coverage, and $780 a year for family. The union bewails the fact that this would result in a pay reduction for current employees and cites other horrors: co-payments, deductibles and caps on prescriptions and surgeries.

    Welcome to the world the rest of us live in. As much as I would like my employer to pay for all of my family’s health care, I know that’s not realistic. Not when health-care costs have climbed nearly 14 percent in 2003, and are on track to increase 12.6 percent next year.

    The union has its job to do, and that is convincing its members that the sky will fall if they budge at all on benefits. And perhaps the union has enough clout with its members and goodwill with the public to force the supermarkets to give in. They have an example in the UAW, which recently managed (without a strike) to preserve a rich benefits package for its members. But it gave a little in the process, agreeing to co-payment increases for brand-name drugs, smaller wage increases and some plant closings. The UAW recognized that if it didn’t work with the U.S. automobile makers to reduce costs and increase competitiveness, Japanese companies would continue to eat Detroit’s lunch.

    There’s a version of competitive bogeyman in the grocery wars, too. Wal-Mart plans on opening some of its full-service Supercenter stores in California. The supermarket chains argue that if they can’t lower costs, they can’t go up against Wal-Mart, which will have a 35 percent share of supermarket-industry sales nationwide by 2007, according to the consulting firm Retail Forward.

    The union dismisses the Wal-Mart incursion as an empty threat, but I wouldn’t bet against the Arkansas juggernaut. If I were a grocery worker, I’d start watching the horizon. A good benefit that you kick in for is far better than the bare-bones wage and benefit offerings of a Wal-Mart, which is notoriously stingy with its workers. And if the supermarkets can’t compete, Wal-Mart might just be one of the few places a checker, bagger or butcher can get a job four years from now.

Workforce Management, November 2003, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!

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