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The Plight of 'Tier Two'

March 02, 2004

Grocery shoppers will welcome the huge supermarket sales intended to lure them back. Strikers who've worked elsewhere for minimum wage to make ends meet say they're happy to have their old jobs back, even if newer workers will face distinctly second-class pay and benefits. But the settlement that ended Southern California's bitter grocery strike and lockout doesn't offer any model for solving a growing national problem: Healthcare coverage is moving beyond the reach of too many working people.

Healthcare has replaced wages as the top priority of labor contracts. The United Auto Workers acknowledged that when it placed healthcare ahead of wage hikes during negotiations last year with car manufacturers.

Now, Southern California grocery workers long blessed with some of the country's best healthcare coverage have agreed to a two-tier system that will force new employees to work for lower wages, progress more slowly through the union pay scale and pay more, probably much more, for healthcare coverage.

Grocery chains will roll out the hard-bargained settlement as a template later this year when labor contracts expire in Northern California and other regions of the country. This means that two-tier contracts, last widely seen among distressed airlines in the 1980s, could make a national comeback. The tiers tend to set one group of older employees against newcomers who get less pay and fewer benefits; the supermarkets believe they can ride it out until the top tier retires or is marginalized.

The erosion of employer-sponsored health plans was a main reason that 2.4 million people joined the ranks of those lacking insurance in 2002, when the still-rising total hit 43.6 million. Pushing the costs of healthcare onto a second tier of lesser-paid workers is playing well on Wall Street, but it won't help families. Hospitals collect just cents on the dollar for the costs of treating uninsured patients; that puts taxpayers and insured people on the hook for the difference.

The answer eventually must come from federal legislation, but Medicare reform proved how difficult it will be to get politicians focused on the problems of uninsured workers. Ballooning federal deficits only add to the pressure to look the other way. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson was credited with using innovative methods as Wisconsin governor to open healthcare to more people, but he has not had much success in moving the issue to a higher priority in Washington.

At least the election year forces the debate. The Democratic candidates have all come up with plans to expand availability of healthcare. Not all the plans are affordable, but their discussion shows that the world's richest nation need not abandon the idea of healthcare for all.

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