As health costs rise, companies, workers at odds

Across the country, unions and employers spar over who will pay


LOS ANGELES - Major labor strikes that erupted last week against grocery stores and the public transit agency here suggest that workers are increasingly willing to stop work over the spiraling cost of health care.

Negotiations broke down over employers' attempts to pass on part of the double-digit increases in health insurance premiums. And with costs showing no sign of retreating, more strife is expected across the nation.

"It is the single most vexatious bargaining issue now," said Peter J. Hurtgen, head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services. "Employers and unions can't control costs. They can only argue and push back and forth about who absorbs those costs."

The transit strike, called Tuesday by maintenance workers at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and joined by the agency's other unions, has stranded nearly half a million bus and light rail passengers, clogged roads, and hurt the mostly low-income workers who rely on public transportation.

Southern California's three largest grocery chains were crippled a week ago when workers went on strike at Safeway Inc.'s Vons stores. Two other large chains, Albertsons Inc. and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs Supermarkets, then locked out unionized workers. About 70,000 workers at 859 stores are affected.

The stores have remained open using managers and replacement workers, but their parking lots are largely empty except for picketers, and customers are crowding into competing stores unaffected by the strikes.

"We are bracing ourselves and our temporary work force for what could be a long strike," John Burgon, president of Ralphs Grocery Co., wrote to employees Wednesday.

The number of strikes in America has fallen sharply in the past decade. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 19 work stoppages at companies employing a thousand or more workers, down from 35 a decade ago. But the health care crisis could change that.

"Health insurance costs seem to be the No. 1 issue right now in contract negotiations, and probably the No. 1 reason people are going on strike," said Forrest S. Briscoe, a professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Pennsylvania State University. "There's a sense that once you begin with cost-sharing, it's a slippery slope."

The grocery industry alone is girding for multiple strikes across the country over the issue. About 90,000 members of the United Food & Commercial Workers union are on strike against stores in California, Missouri and West Virginia. Workers are preparing for walkouts in Arizona, and in cities such as Portland, Ore., and Memphis, Tenn. The major grocery contracts in the Philadelphia area will expire in 15 months.

"Every strike in the past decade has been over health care issues," said Greg Denier, a UFCW spokesman. "It's a growing problem. The system is collapsing. More and more employers are abandoning their employees, shifting millions of dollars in costs on them."

Last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that U.S. workers are paying 50 percent more for health insurance premiums than they were three years ago. The survey said that two-thirds of large employers increased what employees pay for health insurance this year and that half are planning increases next year.

Real wages declined in five of the past eight months, reflecting how higher health care costs are cutting into income.

The number of people with no insurance also is increasing. The Census Bureau reported last month that 43.6 million were not covered last year, up 5.8 percent from 2001.

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