No. 251, Nov. 6-12, 2003



To read an article, click on the headline.

Striking workers hold the line
on health care

Meeting of anti—war labor
activists plans campaign to end
US occupation in Iraq



Striking workers hold the line on health care

Oct. 30-- Rafael Morga, on the job 30 years with Ralphs supermarket in Chino, Calif., last year was named Ralphs’ “King of Courtesy” in all of southern California and is so familiar with his store he can do every job in every department.

But along with other major profitable grocery chains, including Safeway and Albertsons, Ralphs is demanding deep cuts in health benefits that would leave Morga and nearly 90,000 other United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members from California to West Virginia, who are on strike or have been locked out, vulnerable like workers at Wal-Mart, whose competition grocery executives claim is driving them to slash health benefits for their workers.

The grocery chains are demanding what amounts to a 75 percent cut in health coverage for new workers and a 50 percent cut for current ones. As a result, UFCW leaders say coverage would become unaffordable and meaningful health care unattainable.

Workers could lose key benefits, including dental, vision, well-baby care and preventive office visits—and might have to pay as much as half of a $20,000 hospital bill.

“I’m angry that months prior to this strike the companies took such a hard-line stance and weren’t willing to negotiate,” says Morga, a UFCW Local 1428 member who has walked the picket line with co-workers 10 to 12 hours each day since the strike began three weeks ago. “We all want the same things—affordable health care, our kids to go to good schools, a decent way of life.”

The grocery chains’ attempts to slash workers’ health coverage signals a new race to the bottom in job-based health care for America’s working families—one precipitated by corporate giants such as Wal-Mart that make health coverage unaffordable for most of its workers.

According to a new AFL-CIO report, low wages combined with high costs make Wal-Mart’s health coverage unaffordable for 46 percent of its low-paid workers. In 2001, Wal-Mart workers had to pay between 41 percent and 47 percent of the total cost of the company health plan, while similar employees at other large companies paid 16 percent of the total premium for single coverage and 25 percent for family coverage.

“These strikes are not just about UFCW members, because if the giant supermarket chains can kill health care in southern California, then all employers will feel that they can get away with eliminating benefits,” says UFCW President Douglas Dority.

To hold the line on health care, Morga today joined other southern California UFCW workers at a Washington, DC, press conference where union leaders, including AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and UFCW President Douglas Dority, joined to demonstrate their commitment and support for the striking and locked-out workers under a union-movement-wide banner: Hold the Line for America’s Health Care.

“In a time when employers are routinely trying to shift the burden of health care unto working families’ shoulders, these workers are holding the line for quality, affordable care for all of America,” says Sweeney. “This is an extremely important struggle, not only for union members, but for every community in this nation —by taking on their workers, these big, profitable companies are taking on all of America.”

Joining Sweeney and Dority were Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers President Frank Hurt, Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger, SEIU President Andrew Stern and community leaders such as Wade Henderson, executive director of Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women.

Safeway is taking a hardball approach to negotiations, a strategy that will hurt investor returns both short- and long-term, according to a new report by the AFL-CIO Office of Investment.

The AFL-CIO released the report, “Squeezing Safeway Workers Won’t Solve the Problem”, today during a conference call it co-sponsored with J.P. Morgan and Smith Barney Citigroup investment firms for Safeway analysts and investors. The report points to deeper underlying causes for Safeway’s financial woes than health care costs, including poor investments that are destroying Safeway’s competitiveness in southern California.

Executive Vice President and Collective Bargaining Department Director Sarah Palmer-Amos also spoke to Safeway investors and analysts. Palmer-Amos updated participants on the strikes and reviewed the UFCW’s efforts to maintain affordable health care for its members who work for the major companies in the retail food industry.


Meeting of anti—war labor activists plans
campaign to end US occupation in Iraq

By Harry Kelber

Oct. 26 -- More than 150 labor activists representing 99 organizations came together in Chicago on October 24-25 at the call of the US Labor Against the War (USLAW) to plan a national campaign that will defend the rights of workers here at home while demanding an end to the American occupation of Iraq and the many injustices against the Iraqi people.

In its adopted mission statement, the anti-war labor organization declared: “The foreign policy of the Bush Administration, with the consent of Congress, is based on military aggression and the threat of force. It has weakened, rather than strengthened, security in the US, creating enemies around the world and alienating friends…The wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have turned into hostile occupations that are developing into Vietnam-like quagmires.”

The statement also noted that “massive military spending, combined with tax cuts for the rich, are creating colossal budget deficits that threaten to destroy needed social programs for decades, further undermining the standard of living here at home.”

In its forthcoming national campaign, US Against the War will emphasize the interconnection between the war in Iraq and the “war” on working people at home, especially against minorities and women.

The Chicago meeting coincided with a huge anti-war rally in Washington, where 100,000 people gathered to hear impassioned denunciations of “Bush’s War,” by a broad list of speakers, coupled with insistent demands that our troops in Iraq be brought home.

A vivid picture of the grim conditions that Iraqi workers are enduring under the US occupation was reported by the delegation that USLAW had sent to Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s 1987 decrees banning union organizing and strikes are still being enforced by the occupation administrators in the name of fighting terrorism.

In June, the occupation authority promulgated a new law prohibiting strikes and threatening any worker who encourages strike activity will be held as a prisoner of war.

A resolution presented to the Chicago meeting stated that “the US occupation authority has announced it intends to privatize the factories, refineries, mines and other enterprises, selling them off to private owners, despite the fact that these enterprises belong to the Iraqi people, not to the US, and has issued a new law, Public Order 38, allowing 100% foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses and the repatriation of profits.”

Reports from Baghdad reveal that since the war’s formal end on May 1, the US civil authority has frozen wages for most workers at $60 a month, while eliminating bonuses, profit-sharing, and special entitlements for food and housing.

Neither the AFL-CIO leadership in Washington nor its International Affairs Department has publicly responded to the plight of Iraq’s workers and the appeal of their hard-pressed unions for funds, computers, office supplies, and other forms of assistance.

In fact, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions have not officially recognized that a war took place in Iraq and that the enormous postwar problems in that country affect the lives and economic future of America’s working families.