More workers strike over healthcare benefits

Grocery and transit workers walk out in Los Angeles, disrupting lives. Strikes also loom from Ohio to Virginia.

Chai Laplander is having a challenging day.

After quadrupling her usual commute time from the distant suburb of Santa Clarita - thanks to a strike by bus mechanics - the nonunion grocery worker had to cross a line of angry picketers outside the local Ralph's grocery where unions are staging the region's first supermarket strike in 25 years.

As she scans paper towels and produce in a checkout lane, she offers a resigned shrug. "Life here does seem to be getting more complicated ... again," she says.

It's not the first time that 450,000 L.A. commuters such as Ms. Laplander have found themselves thumbing rides or relying on taxis and car pools. When employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began striking Tuesday, clogged freeways stood as still as broken conveyor belts, bringing back memories of a similar strike three years ago. That one lasted over a month.

But it's a concurrent strike by 859 supermarket grocery clerks in Southern California that has compounded the frustration of carrying out even the simplest of daily chores in L.A. Suddenly, the city seems like a model of Soviet inefficiency.

Though coincidental in timing, the two strikes aren't unrelated. Both unions are trying to renegotiate contracts that will boost medical benefits and cover soaring health-insurance costs. The two high-profile strikes follow dozens of recent union disputes in California and elsewhere over health benefits, an issue that may continue to plague contract negotiations coast-to-coast until the larger issue of health costs is addressed.

"We have a healthcare crisis in this country and that has spilled over into every union bargaining negotiation in the country," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University. "Employers are feeling the pressure to cut costs and unions are trying to hold firm not just on behalf of organized workers but unorganized ones as well."

Low costs, low wages

In the case of Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions, and Albertson's supermarkets, negotiators told unionists that they must cut benefits to better compete with discount stores like Target and Wal-Mart. Those superstores, which carry everything from lawn mowers to lingerie, are increasingly stocking food and grocery items, too. Such 'one stop shop' club stores - many of them staffed by nonunionized workers - have changed the way many people shop, making it difficult for traditional supermarkets to compete. Many of them are keen to keep a lid on labor costs to remain solvent. That's difficult at a time when average health insurance premiums have risen 14 percent this year, the third year in a row of double-digit growth.

Strikes on a national level

The supermarket strike here, which began Sunday after contract negotiations failed to agree on reduced benefits for workers and wages for new hires, mirrors a similar grocery-worker strike at Kroger stores in Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky.

The United Food and Commercial Workers - among the largest in the country with 1.4 million members - says it is bracing for similar battles in other states. It began a national strike fund a year ago, and has told local organizers to build their own funds and warn workers to prepare by paying off bills and saving money. UCFW members are on strike in St. Louis and are poised to do so in Wisconsin and West Virginia.

"I hope this is over soon because it's really hurting me something terrible," says Mike Baraga, a 31-year Ralphs employee, standing for his third straight day in hot sun with a giant picket sign. Since both he and his wife work at the company, he says they can't go on much longer without paying rent. "We can't compete with Wal-Mart and Target," he says, noting that their employees often get lower wages, with fewer benefits.

If the first supermarket strike in 25 years is causing inconvenience for shoppers, the region-wide public transportation strike is causing even more palpable reaction.

"No one in my family can even get around," says Sanyika Bryant, a resident of South Central Los Angeles and a member of the Busrider's Union, a group of low-income commuters who have staged a decade-long battle with the MTA over bus availability and cost. Seventy percent of bus commuters are poor and live in the inner city.

Mr. Bryant says he has no way to get to the San Fernando Valley for classes at L.A. City College. His brother and sister have no way to get to school, and his mom can't make it to Walden Books where she works as a sales clerk.

"It's pretty much impossible to live a decent life if you are poor and are cut off from a crucial service like this," says Bryant.

Whereas the previous MTA strike centered over better pay and working conditions, this one is over health benefits.

The MTA mechanics say their union health fund is low on funds. Now they're calling on the MTA to cover escalating costs of medical care.

The MTA says the $17 million it pays into the fund is sufficient to cover the 2,000 employees and retirees.

"Union leaders basically ran the trust fund into the ground and now they want the taxpayers to bail them out," said MTA's CEO Roger Snoble in a statement.

Long-simmering disputes

But bus riders say the strike has been provoked by the MTA's simple greed. Some complain that the MTA spends 70 percent of its funding on transport used by six percent of commuters - those who crisscross the city from more affluent suburbs.

"Whenever they can get money by raising fares, cutting services, attacking health benefits or whatever, they do it," says Busrider Union spokesman Damon Azali.

Some experts say such disagreements between unions and employers cannot be solved from strike to strike, workplace to workplace. The healthcare issue is taking on a national prominence and may loom large in the 2004 presidential election.

"The fight over health benefits in union contracts across the country is the biggest cry yet for a larger look at legislative change at the national level," says Professor Bronfenbrenner of Cornell.

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