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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

The Days of Good Health Benefits for Blue-Collar Workers Are Over

October 15, 2003|Steve Lopez

My Dad always counted his pennies, but not like he has since he retired. Last weekend, while visiting from the Bay Area, he had a bone to pick regarding his glaucoma medicine.

"Last time I bought it, they charged me $83, and this time they wanted $88," he said, wondering why it costs so much to begin with and who got the extra $5 this time. He also wondered why, with both Medicare and a supplemental health plan, he's still getting fleeced.

At the rate we're going, I hope I've got one good eye at his age, because I may have to rob banks to pay for my glaucoma medicine. All you've got to do is look at the two Southern California strikes now underway -- by supermarket employees and MTA mechanics -- to see what we're in for.

Health care is at the heart of each dispute. Employers get hit with rising health-care costs, which cuts into profits. So they pass some of the damage on to employees, which is the equivalent of docking their pay.

"We're paid less than other transit mechanics in major cities," Reid Parker, who fixes bus air-conditioners, claimed Tuesday on the picket line outside Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters in downtown L.A. "But we were OK with it because the medical was good, until now."

It was extremely good, as a matter of fact. Too good to last, same as for supermarket employees who pay nothing for health care.

MTA employees pay no more than $6 a month, and recognizing what a sweetheart deal they had, they've offered to cough up $80. But the two sides didn't appear to be close on that issue or several others. MTA retirees are also facing a big hit on health-care coverage.

I don't mean to break their spirit, especially after hearing my dear old Dad squawk about prescription prices that should get someone arrested.

But MTA management is playing a strong hand, so I don't have particularly good news for the mechanics, or for supermarket employees, or for anybody with a blue-collar job that pays a livable wage and good health benefits.

The party's over.

My advice, in fact, is that you drop your picket sign, get into your car and race to the nearest Wal-Mart to apply for work. You could be assistant manager of the shoe department by the time Ralphs is reduced to selling oranges on freeway offramps and the MTA is a division of Chevron.

"The MTA employee and the supermarket employee are examples of what was supposed to be the bedrock of society -- working people playing by all the rules and enjoying the benefits," says Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education.

"Now we have a situation in which the largest employer in the nation -- Wal-Mart -- refuses to pay full medical care for their workers and families. They are causing a great drain on the public sector, because when their employees get sick, they get treated at public expense."

It's a brilliant management model, though, you have to admit. Ralphs' parent company isn't hurting, Wong says. But why should it continue giving employees the Cadillac of health-care plans when Wal-Mart is setting such a different standard?

"It's an attack on the middle class," says Wong, and part of the continued division of the labor force into haves and have-nots.

"The highly unionized supermarket industry was one of the last areas where workers didn't need a college degree or years of experience and training to buy a home, send their kids to college and enjoy health care."

In other words, your friendly neighborhood grocer may soon have to decide between paying the mortgage and taking the kids to the doctor.

"You've got the growing number of uninsured employers putting pressure on those who are still offering it," says Wong. "It's hard to compete with employers who are offering grossly inferior health care. You could call it a race to the bottom."

I asked if he saw any end to it, and Wong said the only cure is national health-care reform.

This is expected to happen at about the same time Rite-Aid opens a drugstore on the moon.

"Maybe we can tap into some of that $87 billion from George Bush's war budget," Parker said on the picket line at MTA headquarters. "You know, I think you could probably cover every single state budget deficit in the country with what we're spending this year in Iraq."

There's no need for cynicism. Sure, we've got a national scandal in which 40 million people have no health insurance, those who do have it are forking over more each year, and seniors can't afford to buy drugs prescribed by their doctors.

But not all the news is gloomy.

If Wal-Mart has no openings, maybe striking MTA and supermarket employees should go where the money is. I hear a lot of insurance companies, hospital chains, HMOs and pharmaceutical giants are making out like bandits.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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