All week, workers at my neighborhood Von’s have been wearing buttons that say, “No Concessions.” There has been a big sign outside the store, “Now Hiring.” Both management and workers were preparing for a strike beginning Saturday.
A supermarket strike is one of those events that, literally, hits close to home.
I visit my local Von’s almost daily. It’s more than a place to do weekly shopping. I stop by nearly every morning to buy a couple of apples and other snacks to take to work. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for seven years. I know just about every employee down at the story by first name on sight. And they know me.
So, I’ve been digging through news stories trying to get a sense of the issues that might drive the strike.
Some of the information I’ve found is contradictory, but here are a few stories.Story #1
Hedy Klein, a longtime Ralphs employee, said she would be forced under the latest company health care proposal to pay $400 a month to keep taking an anti-cancer drug she said has saved her life, as well as pay a health care premium of about $750 a year.Story #2:
One of the most contentious issues is company-funded health care. The most recent proposal would require grocery workers to pay $1,300 a year for family insurance premiums. Employees would also face increases in deductibles and co-payments for doctor visits, hospital visits and prescription drugs.Story #3:
Albertson’s spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld said this round of labor negotiations has been tough because of “skyrocketing rises in health-care costs,” changes in the stock market that have affected employee pension funds and an “influx of non-union competitors,” such as Wal-Mart.
“We have to make sure our cost structure is competitive with non-union competitors,” she said. “Our labor costs need to be contained. We offer extremely generous benefits, and we want to continue that . . . but they have to be in line with the economy.”
At issue in the UFCW talks are a number of economic matters, including moves by the grocery chains to freeze pension funding and have workers pay more for health insurance. The stores also want to install a two-tier pay system that would bring newer workers in at lower levels, and eliminate some pay differentials, such as those for working Sundays.Story #4:
At the contract ratification/strike meeting held Thursday at Victorville’s Ramada Inn for members of Local 1167, Lathrop read salient features of the supermarkets’ proposal that he said would hurt workers.
Those features included weekly premiums for health coverage totaling $260 a year for individuals and $780 a year for families, and a 30-cents-an-hour wage increase for food clerks and meat cutters starting October 2005 — terms read out to loud groans and long sighs.
The supermarkets, though, say the proposed changes are crucial to remaining competitive in a world of low-cost, big-box retailers, warehouse retail stores, specialty stores and health-care costs that Albertsons spokesperson Stacia Levenfeld said have gone up by 50 percent in the past three years.
“We’re asking our employees to share in some of those health care costs,” Calderon said. “This includes $5 for individuals and $15 for families per weekly paycheck. To go from zero to $5 — they’re used to enjoying that generous benefit.”
Just how much are employees being asked to pay for health care insurance? If story #4 is correct, not that much. In fact, they’re being asked to pay what I pay, and I suspect that if you’re full-time in a non-union job, it’s about what you pay, too? In other words, at least on that one demand, what the chains are asking is not unreasonable.
My local Von’s workers tell me that they’re not asking for more money, but one story I read said they want 50 cents more an hour, while the chains are reportedly offer another 30 cents an hour. Frankly, under the circumstances, I think any offer of increased pay is pretty generous.
I’m sure there are more issues involved, but no California newspaper seems to be doing a particularly good job of covering this issue.
Now, you might think that because I fancy myself a conservative, I might be anti-union. I don’t consider myself anti-union at all. I fully support collective bargaining. In a capitalist system, all stake holders in the system, including workers, have a right and an obligation to seek through all legal means whatever economic advantage they can gain. Since unions are perfectly constitutional (right to free association), employees are perfectly free to band together and get for themselves the best pay and benefits they can muster.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that employers have any obligation to honor those demands. Employers enjoy every right to maximize their profits, and if they can successfully break a union — and one would assume that success includes not damaging their own business — then they have a right to do that as well.
An equitable collective bargaining situation only works if both sides have something to gain and something to lose and were ambition and avarice balance ambition and avarice. Unions would like us to believe: workers all good, corporations all bad. I don’t buy that for a minute.
For example, the California chains can see the Wal-Mart train a-comin’, it’s comin’ round the bend, and they’ve face increased competition again. Should the chains surrender all profitability just to continue giving employees a free ride on health care?
This morning my checker told the girl in front of me that the scabs (she didn’t use that word) who cross the picket line won’t make the advertised $17 an hour. They’ll only make $8 an hour because they won’t have much experience, if any. My only thought was, well $8 an hour is probably more than what Von’s will be paying clerks once they start to open up local stores. And you expect your employer to remain competitive in that environment?
Business is business. I’m all for employees getting as much as they can from employers, but there also comes an point when employees must realize that they have an ethical obligation to their employers. Employees are duty bound to help their employers maximize profits, stay in business and fight off competition. When I see employees wearing “no compromise” buttons I realize they just don’t get it, and they probably deserve to lose their jobs to non-union workers.
So will I cross a picket line during this strike? Yes. But not because of any sympathies with the business owners. I’ll cross because just like the chains, and just like the workers, I have my own economic interests to look after first. I’ll shop where I think I can get the lowest prices with the least hassle. And the thing the employees must realize is that if a year from now, that means driving 20 minutes south to shop at a Wal-Mart supermarket and save $100 to a $150 a month on my grocery bill, because Wal-Mart doesn’t pay union wages, then I’ll do it. My only obligation in this dispute is to my own pocket book. I imagine many other consumers feel the same way. Obviously, the chains understand that, but I don’t think the unions do.