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Supermarket strike — week 3

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Best Foods MayoMy wife and I have been having this running argument for several weeks now — is generic/store-brand mayonnaise the same as Best Foods? I say, the store brand is every bit as good as Best Foods. She says she can taste the difference. No big deal, except I like saving a buck or two on food where I can, and the store brand is generally a buck less than Best Foods.

If I had gone to Von’s today, I could have bought Best Foods for $2.69. The same price as the store brand. But I went to Food4Less and paid $3.68.

So much for getting food for less.

The whole grocery strike thing has gotten me to examine how and were we buy our food. Until three weeks ago, I hadn’t give it much thought. I figured one chain’s prices were pretty much the same as the next. You might pay more for a certain item in one store, but save on another item. And over the course of a month of grocery shopping it would all even out.

Maybe that’s not true, I thought. Maybe I can save money if I shop at Food4Less. Maybe I can save money if Wal-Mart opens a store in my area. Maybe.

Well, let’s look at a few of the items I bought today … first price is the Food4Less price; second price is the advertised price on the Von’s web site.

  • Hunt’s Manwich: $1.55/$2.29
  • Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce: $3.68
  • 6 cans of Progresso Soup: $3.08/$1.50
  • Del Monte Green Beans: $0.49/$0.99
  • Del Monte Carrots: $0.49/$0.79

It appears that you can save some money on selected items at Food4Less, but not everything. Look at that price difference on Progresso Soup!

Food4Less claims they saved me $39.39 today. I’m dubious. I doubt that savings is based on Von’s Club pricing. Also, there was a lot at Food4Less I couldn’t get. For example, they have no caffeine-free diet sodas of any kind. And the meat selections are entirely geared toward large families.

Speaking of meat, when I shop at Von’s, I only buy meat on special. A rib-eye steak, for example, at Food4Less was going for $7 or $8 (rib-eye being one of the few meat items not sold in bulk). Roughly the same price I’d pay at Von’s, unless the steak was on Von’s Club. Then I would pay between $4 and $6. I doubt Food4Less ever has that kind of mark down. I can save a ton of money by shopping for my meat at Von’s, I imagine, regardless of where else I buy my other food.

But do I really want to go from store to store just to save a buck? Maybe. We’ll see.

For now, I’m aced out of getting good meat. Von’s has gone to pre-packaged Tyson’s products for the duration of the strike.

There’s been some good coverage of the strike from the Star over the last week.

The biggest news to come out about the strike this week is the UFCW’s claim that the chains are lying when they say that all they are asking for is a $5 a week contribution from employees for health care, and a standard co-pay. This story, I think, explained the Union’s position well:
At their news conference Wednesday, United Food and Commercial Workers union officials said the true impact will not be to increases in how much employees pay, but to cuts to the benefits themselves. In order to retain the same comprehensive coverage they have now, employees will be paying as much as $95 per week, they said.

The supermarkets Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons are offering a “fixed sum’ contribution plan, which would stay at the same price even if health care costs rise. Currently, there is a “set benefits’ plan, which provides the same coverage regardless of rising health care costs, according to union officials.

The impact is that the fixed- sum plan would require more and more contributions from employees as costs rise.

Union officials said a fixed-sum plan generally requires a six- month reserve a safety net in case of drastic health care rate hikes and supermarket officials have not factored that into their offer.

Sidney Abrams, an actuarial consultant for the UFCW, said although the initial sum that the supermarkets are paying for their employees’ medical benefits will not change dramatically, the overall impact on coverage and costs could be substantial to the tune of nearly $100 per week.

Who’s telling the truth? I don’t know. I do find it interesting how some people believe everything the UFCW says, as if unions can do no wrong and all corporations are evil. I see those sorts of comments all around the blogosphere.

Even though I tend to side with management on this one, I do think the truth is more complicated than that. I remain largely against the UFCW on this strike because of their hardline no-concessions position prior to the strike. And it’s not like the chain’s $5-per-week spin is anything new. That claim was part of the news cycle before the strike started. Why is the UFCW redefining the nature of the dispute three weeks later?

I see a lot of sympathy for the strikers along this line: “Most of these workers aren’t earning top union scale, work only part time and have families to support.” First, I’d like to know how many of these workers truly have families to support (and on a part-time salary), rather than relying on spouses who are the primary bread winner. Second, if you’re relying on Von’s to support you and your family, shouldn’t you be out getting some new job skills during your off hours? Third, show me another industry where part-time workers get health benefits?

It’s that third point I’d really like to address. Does anybody argue the claim that health care costs are going up for everybody? Does anybody seriously argue the charge that business costs are rising for companies throughout California? Is there any real dispute that big-box stores currently pose a real competitive risk to the chain supermarkets, and that if Wal-Mart comes into California with grocery stores (and they probably will), it will only get worse? In other words, the chains have some legitimate concerns.

One thing I hear from people when talking about this is, “Yeah, but Safeway Co. is turning a profit.” As if that’s an argument against cutting benefits. Well, let’s be clear on something. It’s Safeway’s fiduciary responsibility to turn profits. But legal issues aside, profits are also the only reason to be in business. Profits are what create jobs. There’s a reason communism doesn’t work — because there’s no incentive to get better at what you do unless you can profit from it.

Of course, workers have the same rights and obligations to earn profits for themselves as any corporation. That’s why I am not a knee-jerk opponent of unions. When collective bargaining works correctly, it improves lives of workers, especially workers in low-skill industries, where individual employees have less bargaining power. But I believe collective bargain only works when the union recognizes the business obligations of the employers, the real and projected competitive universe of the industry, and is willing to work in partnership with the employer to ensure its survival. Unions can put businesses out of business, and that’s when unions are at their worst. And I think some unions, or some union leaders, think businesses should not turn a profit. Ever. That all revenue after expenses should go to the employees.

And that’s where the health care issue comes in. The UFCW needs to make a real and serious proposal to help the chains cut their healthcare costs. If the UFCW has such a proposal, I haven’t heard it. Not even a hint of it.

So here’s my proposal: Eliminate health benefits for part-time workers. Reduce the overall number of workers with healthcare, while also demanding that the overall number of full-time workers be increased. And give those full-time workers benefits with fixed, guaranteed costs. None of this sliding, pooled funds stuff. And make benefits costs the same for all full-time employees, regardless of when they were hired. Additionally, to reduce the number of employees getting benefits, make benefits available only to employees who don’t have spouses getting health benefits from other employers that cover the whole family.

I doubt the UFCW will go for that because unions tend to engage in a socialist kind of group think where all must share equally, but why should a part-time worker get benefits? It makes no sense to me.

Finally (sorry this post is so long) … for a take from a replacement worker, here’s Melissa, who left the following comments on my post on blogcritics:
For reference, I’m a scab, and I’m making damn good money. If the strike goes for three weeks I can more than cover the cost of fees and books next term. The state raised my university fees, my registration fees, my gas prices, my taxes. I’m sorry for any hardships that strikers are going through but times are tough all over and I think that they need to accept that reality and come to a compromise before the corporations determine that they can do without any of their old workers after all.

I read commentary the other day, a striker was calling replacements “inexperienced bottom feeders with no customer relation ability.” I think that many of these strikers would be dismayed to know that virtually everybody who is scabbing in the store that I’m at has significant retail, bakery, deli or warehouse experience. We’ve got drivers, meat cutters, book keepers, produce clerks. Many of them are college educated as well. If they don’t want to compete with this group of scabs for their own jobs somewhere down the line, they better get back to work. We’re being well trained in addition to being well paid.
Indeed.

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About Howard Owens

  • http://ari.typepad.com Steve Rhodes

    Yes, all those companies that lay off tens of thousands of people to boost profits create jobs.

    And studies have shown that layoffs don’t increase profits in the long term. One example is someone I know at Sony who just got laid off. She says she’ll probably be hired back as a consultant at a higher hourly rate because she is the only one has the skills to get certain work done (upper management decided who was fired, not her boss).

    Everyone should have health coverage.

    It will really help our health care crisis if some of the few part-time jobs which provide insurance cut that benefit. Already, over 43 million people don’t have health insurance (including yours truly who has a sore throat and it would be nice to be able to see a doctor).

    And when Wal-Mart gives their workers forms to get food stamps and other government programs you’re paying for it. When the part and fulltime workers go to the emergency room or have health problems which could have been prevented with regular check-ups, the burden eventually fall on tax payers.

    The lack of health coverage for part-time employees also causes many employers to not create full time jobs which people can live on, so people work multiple part time jobs, none of which have health insurance (which doesn’t leave time for them to go to school for better skills – take a look at this interview for some background on low-wage jobs).

    If a spouse has health insurance through their job, they will take the better plan or the other plan if there is an incentive (my mother as a teacher chose to get a cash bonus rather than insurance since she was covered by my father’s job).

    The union has proposed there by a play or pay system where employers either provide health insurace or pay into a syatem to cover people without insurance.

    Personally, I think a single-payer plan which eliminates the rising costs of the insurance system would be better (it seems to work in most of the rest of the industrialized world where strikes are uusally over wages and vacation, not health care).

    And as far as what you wrote earlier about cutting the CEO of Safeway’s compensation wouldn’t solve the problem. I never said it would. But one of the problems with work in the US is that the gap between the highest paid and lowest has been growing.

    I’ve seen more complaints here about how the Von’s workers have better health benefits and lower premiums than you do (which should mean you should have better benefits, not that they should have worse) than the executives who will make more this year than you will in your lifetime.

  • http://mcfrank.blogspot.com Chris Arabia

    when i first moved across the rockies, i was shocked and chagrined to discover that hellman’s mayonaisse was marketed as best foods west of the rockies. the bring out the hellman’s song was even changed to the bring out the best foods song.

    the entire health care debate is a largely masturbatory exercise until and unless we rein in trial lawyers, the insurance industry, and the escalation trend in costs.

  • whiteboy

    I reply for the reason that I be a VONS customer for 40+ years.
    What has changed me about VONS be that I been assaulted, side-to-side, via shoulder attack.
    From a (found out to be clerk) Vons employee of another human race. That’s a pre-planned attack; RACISM. BIGGOTRY.
    The same contact, as when a car cuts off another car. but with real contact.
    The store manager whom I demanded – claimed to not be avail.
    As the “assistant store manager” immediately defending his employee.
    But does this upper person know of a possible union strike that be planned. As this employee be in his “high” for a strike.
    I analyze this, in addition to the employee/checker’s assault against me. Along with recent i’net websites.
    Then too, his human race has a higher record in such activity of doing (and worse than it) vs. the asst manager whom defend. If the surveillance cameras did document any of this, be a mystery.
    As if Safeway-Vons to solve it.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Is it just me, or is there absolutely no part of the preceding comment that makes any sense whatsoever?

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