Nob Hill strikers fear medical benefit cuts

Nob Hill strikers fear medical benefit cuts

Michele Ellson

Video by Donna Eyestone; click to view.

When Bernice Rodriguez’s mother retired after more than two decades as a bakery manager for the Raley’s grocery store chain, she wanted to make sure her medical benefits would remain in place.

“They told her not to worry about it,” Rodriguez, a food service manager who has worked for the company for more than a decade, said Monday.

But on Sunday the chain’s employees went on strike over a proposal to change their medical benefits, a strike that included Rodriguez and a few dozen workers and supporters who picketed in front of the Nob Hill Foods store on Blanding Avenue on Monday. They’re concerned that the company's leaders will continue to pursue a proposal to move workers out of their existing plan and into a company-sponsored one could ultimately put workers in a costlier plan that offers less coverage, despite a company spokesman's insistence to the contrary.

Grocery workers and their employers are fighting similar battles all over the country, but the one being waged here could have national implications, a union spokesman said, because Northern California’s grocery contracts offer workers here the best pay and benefits in the country. He said the last time grocery workers struck here was against Safeway, in 1995.

“And they’re going directly after it,” United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 communication director Michael Henneberry said of Raley's managers.

A Raley’s spokesman said the company’s final contract offer, which it is preparing to impose on thousands of union workers, will trim wages but doesn’t touch benefits.

“We are not making any changes to the health care benefits or retiree health benefits at this time,” Raley’s spokesman John Segale wrote in a statement e-mailed to The Alamedan.

Segale said in his e-mail that the contract being imposed on workers would freeze pay for two years and eliminate premium pay for Sundays and holidays – changes the company’s nonunion employees have already faced – but would maintain a week of paid vacation and four paid holidays. He did not provide a copy of the contract offer when a reporter requested it.

But Henneberry said the decision to take benefits off the table is a temporary one.

“Their rhetorical flourish about ‘That’s off the table’ is nonsense,” Henneberry said.

Union workers at Northern California’s Safeway stores, Raley’s/Nob Hill Foods and Lucky’s/Save Mart – the region’s three big unionized grocery chains – receive medical coverage from a plan implemented in the 1950s that is overseen by a board that includes both worker and management representatives. Henneberry said the plan’s design keeps employees’ costs lower than other, company-sponsored plans.

But last year Raley’s top managers proposed pulling their union workers and retirees out of the plan and put them in the company’s plan for nonunion employees, a move Henneberry said will eliminate workers’ voice in the design of the plan and also its cost.

“Next year when the enrollment comes up, it’s questionable whether there will be a plan, or what the cost of the plan will be,” Henneberry said.

The company’s representatives have argued that they’re asking for concessions to address tough economic times and to help them compete with a growing number of non-union stores. But union reps have said that managers of the private company have refused to show them the financial information they need to see to decide whether to accept the concessions Raley’s is requesting.

Union reps and workers said they understand the economic pressures their employers are facing, and some workers said they’d be willing to pay more for benefits as a result. But they said other grocers intend to keep the benefit plan despite those pressures, even after demonstrating they’re struggling financially.

The union made a deal with Lucky’s/Save Mart that preserved benefits but temporarily cut some pay after looking at that company’s finances, and Henneberry said Safeway’s negotiators have said they’re fine with the cost of the current benefit plan.

Rodriguez said that under the current plan, she has a $25 copay and no medical bills – which as a grandmother of 12 is what she said she can afford. Her mother has heart trouble and is dependent on the benefit plan remaining in place, she said.

Pay for Nob Hill workers can range from $10 for baggers to $21 for journeyman checkers and stockers and a little more for the stores’ meat cutters, Henneberry said.

Other workers picketing in front of Nob Hill on Monday said they were supporting the chain’s older and retired workers, who are eligible for more pay than those hired after 2005.

“They’re the ones who taught us,” Dennis Vann, who works in the store’s deli department, said.

Some shoppers said they support the strike; one supporter told Vann and another striker, Kourtney McCrary, that he won’t shop at Nob Hill until it’s settled. Others drove past the strikers, turning their heads to avoid their gazes as they rolled into Nob Hill’s parking lot to shop.

A spokesman for the local firefighters union, who said the grocery union backed firefighters during their contentious contract negotiations with the city a few years ago, said the union is asking current and retired members to boycott Raley’s stores.

“We will participate in the picket lines and do whatever is requested of us,” International Association of Firefighters Local 689 political director Jeff DelBono said. “My membership as a whole is anxious to help out wherever it's needed.”

Like the firefighters union, the Alameda Education Association has been active in campaigning for local candidates and against Proposition 32, which would curtail their ability to use union dues for political purposes, along with Governor Jerry Brown's Proposition 30, which would raise taxes to fund state and county services. But association president Gray Harris said her union is also ready to assist grocery workers' efforts.

"While the teachers have been working hard on our campaign, they see the even greater value in working together and will help UFCW with whatever they ask of us," Harris said.

The store was serving a handful of shoppers when a reporter walked inside, at about 10:30 a.m. on Monday. Its meat counter and steam trays stood empty along with a juice display, and a cold case containing cakes was half full. Some store employees greeted shoppers at the front doors with flyers laying out the company’s position on the strike and its continued efforts to serve customers, while others milled about the store.

In his e-mail, Segale said Raley’s and Nob Hill employees are expected to show up to work.

“We have plans in place to deal with any job actions to keep our stores open and operating to meet the needs of our customers,” he wrote.