The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Wednesday threw his support behind tens of thousands of Southern California grocery workers who are fighting proposed health care hikes proposed by major supermarket chains.
Clergy members and community activists met with local Ralphs supermarket managers at a Los Angeles store to show concern and support for unionized grocery workers because the cost of health care is "driving people into a hole," Jackson said.
"They want health care and not welfare. They have been driven into poverty," he said.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 have been asked to vote Friday and Saturday on the health care package proposed by negotiators for the Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons chains. A rejection automatically authorizes union officials to call a strike after 72 hours, although both sides said that was unlikely.
A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.
Federally mediated contract talks officially ended on Wednesday. No new meetings were scheduled but Ralphs Grocery Co. spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said the chain is committed to staying at the table to negotiate.
Local 770 represents about a third of the 62,000 grocery workers from the Central Coast to the Mexico border. They have been working without a contract since their last deal expired in March.
Both sides announced last month that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but health care costs have been a major sticking point.
Ralphs currently pays more than 90 percent of employee health coverage costs, Doyel said. Workers hired before 2004 pay nothing for health insurance while those hired later pay either $7 a week for single coverage or $15 a week for family coverage.
The companies' proposal would raise that to $9 a week for singles and $23 a week for families. That is much lower than the average cost of health care insurance in California, she said.
Doyel said she believes the proposal is good for employees and their families and is affordable.
Union local spokesman Mike Shimpock contended the supermarkets were attempting to shift rising health care costs onto the backs of low-paid workers at a time when the companies are reaping billions of dollars in profits.
"Without health care, we have nothing. I work for health care only, pretty much," said Asenheh Brim, 50, who is raising a young stepdaughter.
Brim, a service deli worker who appeared at the meeting in a hairnet and stained apron during a break, said she did not want another strike if it could be avoided.
"I was here for the last strike. It was devastating," she said. "My pride did not hold up, with the bills ... I had got pneumonia and I got very sick."
Strike pay dwindled from $200 a week down to about $75, she said.
Her future husband, a California Department of Transportation employee, supported her and, in fact, married her so that she could receive his health insurance, Brim said.