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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Grocery Retirees Have a Beef Too

November 08, 2003|Lawrence Weiner | Lawrence Weiner lives in Culver City.

I know many people just like the ones walking the picket lines at the supermarket. They were my co-workers during my 35 years in the grocery industry in Southern California. I retired a year ago.

Let me explain how this strike affects me. My time in the grocery industry was a roller-coaster ride made up of jobs as bagger, department manager, front-end service manager and assistant manager. I spent the last 12 years as a cashier. I always enjoyed my job, although sometimes more than others. I had good times. I had supervisors who were good men and women who cared about the people they managed. The bad times, which were infrequent, were marked by unreasonable, unfriendly and unhelpful management.

The years I spent as a cashier were in some ways the most challenging. Like Sisyphus, sentenced to an eternity of pushing a huge stone up a mountain only to watch it roll back down again, it was the same bananas and milk, the same stacks of coupons, and the same complaints over and over, eight hours a day, five or six days a week. It could have been bleak. Indeed, for some it was a life sentence at hard labor.

But I had another way of looking at it. What made it bearable and often made it joyous was the opportunity to get to know and enjoy an incredibly diverse and interesting group -- of human beings -- my co-workers and customers.

The infrequent nasty customer or disagreeable co-worker always became the very best story to tell. The Christmases and Thanksgivings and weekends away from my family were spent with my second family: those whom I served with and those whom I served. I knew I was never going to get rich, but it was a decent job with great benefits.

Lost in the current claims and counterclaims about the costs that Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons are asking their current employees to shoulder is the proposal these companies have made for their retirees. Retirees' health and welfare benefits are renegotiated in every contract. Recently, I sat in on a regular membership meeting of my former union, UFCW Local 1442 in Santa Monica. When the local's president read the proposal for the retirees, I nearly fell out of my chair. If the companies have their way, retirees will be asked to pay a full 25% of the upfront costs of our health-care coverage. I do not know exactly how this works out mathematically, but I know it is a lot more than $5 or even $15 a week. There would be huge co-pays for all medical care and a large increase in the co-pay for prescriptions.

Those of us who are living on fixed incomes will be asked to pay a huge portion of our pension toward health care, or we will lose our coverage permanently. And because we have no cost-of-living adjustments, those who have been retired the longest have the smallest pensions and, percentage-wise, would be hit the hardest.

I asked the union if there was some way to mobilize all the retirees and was told there is no list easily available. This means there is no way to even tell them individually and directly what is about to happen to them if the companies get their way. Given all of this, you would think that I would be eager to spend as much time as possible walking the picket line. But I have a problem with this. I have a very sore right hip. Standing and walking the line is painful. I strongly believe that this condition is work-related and have made that claim through legal channels. While this is being resolved, I now find that the care I am getting I may not be able to afford much longer.

So if you see me on the picket line sitting in a chair, please do not think I am doing so because I am lazy or casual about this strike. I am doing it because I feel the need to express my outrage at what the supermarket companies want to take away from me, and standing is not an option. Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons: You say you care about the people walking your picket lines. Do you also care about the people who built your very successful businesses? If you do, get back to the bargaining table and end this strike and lockout now. And do not increase your profits on the backs of retirees like me.

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