|By Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
Health insurance is at the heart of the strike against Raley's. Even as they prepare to give ground on wages, workers are fighting to preserve a plan with no employee premiums and some of the most generous benefits found in the private sector.
As experts point out, this fight is one most workers haven't been able to win.
Over the past few decades, companies have shifted a significant share of their health care costs to workers in the form of premium payments, deductibles and co-pays. And few private employers still provide the benefit central to the Raley's fight, and which the grocer is trying to eliminate: health coverage for retirees who have turned 65 and are eligible for
"These generous retiree health plans are becoming an endangered species," said
How rare is Raley's retiree health coverage? Fewer than 18 percent of private-sector employees work for companies that provide it, according to a recent study by the nonprofit
Raley's, a private company controlled by the Raley family, said it has no choice but to join the trend. The
"The reason is simple -- we can no longer afford this very expensive coverage," said Raley's spokesman
Even in the public sector, where employee benefits are generally considered sacred, retiree health care is under siege.
With the Raley's strike in its fourth day Wednesday, one of the company's stores took on the air of a political rally during the evening rush hour.
But as the strikers cheered, the challenge they face was on display: The store was doing a fairly brisk business. Employees said traffic had picked up since the strike's first day, when the store was largely empty. Company officials have said sales revenue across the chain is recovering.
The fate of thousands of retirees isn't the only sticking point in the Raley's strike, but it's the one that seems to spark the most emotion.
"I understand health care is going up," said
When a Raley's human resources manager,
"They're 65 and they're eligible for
Arcuri, clutching a picket sign, found that unacceptable.
"Do you realize what will happen to you if you have no benefits?" she asked Phillips. "God forbid if you or your husband gets really sick."
Making an apples-to-apples comparison of
Union grocers have been wrestling with retiree health care costs for some time. In the
In the latest negotiations, the
On health care, though, the union is digging in. With most workers earning considerably less than the top pay of
"Almost every grocery strike has health benefits in there somewhere," said
Raley's says bloated health care costs are contributing to the company's deteriorating financial condition. Struggling against nonunion grocers, Raley's says it is losing millions of dollars a year.
Besides cutting off coverage for retirees eligible for
The plan is identical to the coverage provided to the unionized workforce at Raley's Food Source subsidiary. It includes three options: two Blue Shield PPOs and a Kaiser HMO.
Segale said the proposed package is at least as generous as the current plan, which is run by a trust fund overseen by labor and management. Workers would continue to pay no monthly premiums, although they would be charged co-pays and deductibles.
Under the proposal, Raley's would run the health plan. "We can manage the plan more efficiently and more economically," the Raley's spokesman said.
On the picket line, workers said this week they believe the plan isn't nearly as good as their existing insurance.
"Decisions about co-pays, deductibles, drug coverages, even medical providers (are) left up to the company,"
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