Sarah Palmer Amos
International Executive Vice President and Director of Collective Bargaining for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
October 22, 2003
From Southern California to West Virginia and Missouri in between, almost 90,000 supermarket workers are fighting to save affordable health care for themselves, their communities and future generations of workers.
This outbreak of strikes in different parts of the country is not a coincidence. It is part of a planned and coordinated effort on the part of major retail food chains to effectively eliminate worker health care benefits in the supermarket industry.
The employers have tried to cover their real agenda with a coldly calculated misinformation campaign about the true nature of their demands on health care. The supermarket giants are afraid to tell the truth because they know the public would be revolted by the unrestrained greed and the total disregard for human need contained in their demands.
In all my years of bargaining contracts, I have never seen a more flagrant employer campaign of lies than I have witnessed here. We are talking about people’s lives. We’re talking about their ability to provide health care for their children. We’re talking about their ability to obtain medical care in life and death situations.
The employers, Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons, are pounding away with the big lie. Over and over again they say “”it’s only about a modest co-pay.”” How dare they lie when they know the facts, they understand exactly what their proposal would do.
70,000 jobs in Southern California that now come with comprehensive affordable health care would be transformed into low wage jobs, without meaningful health care benefits. And the next generation of supermarket workers and every generation thereafter would be without health care protection.
The employers would abandon their commitment to the workers who have given them a lifetime of service. Retirees would face increasing costs and reduced benefits. The employers, led by Safeway CEO Steve Burd, have made their intentions clear: cut cost regardless of the human cost; squeeze another penny in profit, and the public be damned. As Burd said, “”this is an investment in our future.””
People are not part of the equation in Burd’s view of the future. But people are the source of Safeway’s profits.
Safeway is built on superior service from workers and loyalty from customers. Steve Burd now threatens both.
The fact is: customers come to Vons and other Safeway outlets because the workers establish a relationship with customers. They are friends and neighbors. Supermarket workers are part of the fabric of the community.
How can you keep the profits that come from superior service when you attack the very workers that provide the service?
Steve Burd is like a fading movie star, desperately trying to regain his former glory. From being the darling of Wall Street, he is now a box office bust. And now he expects Southern California workers to pay for his miscues in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Supermarket workers in Southern California average about $12 to $14 an hour and most do not get 40 hours a week.
Under the employers’ proposal, after three years, an average worker would earn about $12.30 an hour, that’s $369 a week before taxes are taken out or about $19,173 a year.
That’s a salary that can keep a single mom and her children out of poverty but, cut her health care benefits or shift several thousand dollars worth of health care costs from the company onto her and, look what happens.
A self-supporting working family can be reduced to near poverty. A self-supporting working family can be reduced to welfare.
Who should bear the burden of rising health care cost—a $19,000 a year working mom or Southern California taxpayers who will pay when more workers become eligible for Medi-Cal? Or, should Safeway be responsible for its workers?
Operating profits for the employers have increased ten times faster than health care costs. A little of that profit should be used to pay the cost of health care.
The UFCW remains ready to talk about cost containment. We will cooperate in any program or plan that stretches the health care dollar or makes the benefits more efficient but we will not agree to the elimination of health benefits in the supermarket industry!
The workers on the picket line are heroes. They are fighting not only for themselves but for future generations of workers. They have earned the support and the respect of their communities. I am proud to be part of the their Union.