Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 22, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

A MESSAGE FROM THE GROCERY WORKERS UNION....I don't normally have guest posts, but yesterday I wrote a short piece about the supermarket strike that generated quite a few comments. Today, Barbara Maynard, the chief spokesperson for UFCW Locals 770 and 1442, the grocery workers unions in the Los Angeles area, would like to respond to some of the comments. Take it away, Barbara:

Greetings everybody. Seems maybe the debate slipped away from the grocery workers themselves and into a referendum about unions? How bout we get back to the 70,000 grocery workers for a minute...

Im quite involved in this strike and Id like to share a few facts just to set the record straight. Lets then debate these facts.

With regard to health care, Ive heard people say over and over again that everybody contributes something to their health plan so should grocery workers. Well, did you know that over the years grocery workers have given up pay raises in exchange for the assurance of having good health insurance? The employer's contribution toward healthcare has been a part of their compensation. The union could have negotiated it the other way. They could have agreed to higher wages and higher employee premiums...but the workers wanted a lower paycheck in exchange for fully paid health care.

OK, so that was then and health costs have been escalating. If this was about "contributing a little to their healthcare" there would be no strike. The employer proposal that led to this strike put so little money on the table that, in addition to the premium pickup of $5 to $15 a week, workers health benefits under their insurance plan would have to be cut 50% (which means that health care costs would be shifted onto the workers outside their insurance plan, meaning out of their own pocket). If the workers want to get the same insurance plan, it would cost them $95 a week or nearly $5,000 a year. THAT IS 25% OF THE AVERAGE WORKER'S SALARY. Is that what "everybody " pays out of pocket on a percentage basis? Hardly....

The fact is that most of these workers at an average annual gross income of $20,000 live paycheck to paycheck and earn their healthcare. If the cost to the worker is too high, experience has shown that workers "opt out" of insurance and roll the dice by becoming uninsured.

The bottom line regarding health care is that when a worker lives paycheck to paycheck she can only get her healthcare one of two ways: earn it or get it from the taxpayer. The answer as a taxpayer is clear to me: I would rather people earn their healthcare than get it from me as a taxpayer. What about you?

The companies have proposed to pay all new hires and the stores have about 1/3 turnover each year, which means that there are a lot of new hires $3 to $4 an hour less than the current employees. What does this mean? This means that new hires will be making Wal-Mart wages, which means that anybody with kids will be eligible for food stamps and taxpayer subsidized health care...

I hear a lot about these employees being overpaid. Did you know that the average hourly wage in the stores is $12.97? Did you know that 70% of the workforce is part time with the average number of hours worked per week just 30? Thats slightly more than $20k a year...hardly a big wage.

Having said that, there are some classifications in the store that make as much as $17.90/hour. There's no question that these are good jobs and the wages they make have been fought for. And because they're good jobs, they attract good people. People with customer service skills. (Have you gone into a store in Southern California with minimum wage workers lately? They don't care at all about you or their store!) Many grocery workers make a career in the stores and, as a result, they take real pride in the things that matter to me as a consumer: clean stores, well stocked shelves, knowledgeable staff (try asking a Wal-Mart worker where to find something like Devonshire cream he would stare at you blankly and say "try aisle 46" ... without having any idea where it is).

Heres the key question: Would you rather that these 70,000 middle class jobs become poverty level jobs filled by workers who have to turn to the taxpayer for healthcare and food stamps? Thats what the companies are proposing because thats what Wal-Mart has. The CEOs of these three companies are just trying to keep up with the Waltons. Their combined operating profits have gone up 91% in the past five years...but Wal-Marts have gone up even more. Good lord when is enough enough? At what price profits???

Kevin Drum 8:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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