Striking grocery workers emphasize health issues

LOS ANGELES: A strike by grocery-store workers in Southern California has dominated area news for the past week, as the union attempts to frame the strike as a debate over the right of its members to employer-provided health insurance.

LOS ANGELES: A strike by grocery-store workers in Southern California has dominated area news for the past week, as the union attempts to frame the strike as a debate over the right of its members to employer-provided health insurance.

"This is a fight for healthcare," said Latino communications consultant Yanka Burgos, who has been hired to do media outreach in the Spanish-language market on behalf of the local branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. "This is something a lot of people can relate to because no matter what part of society they are from, healthcare costs have been rising. And at the same time, what the supermarkets are trying to do is ask the workers to pay more money but cut the benefits."

The strike began on October 11 and was aimed at Safeway, which owns the Vons chain of markets. However, Albertsons and Kroger (owner of Ralphs stores), also negotiating new contracts, locked out union workers in a show of solidarity.

While the union has been vocal in speaking out and creating media events, the grocery chains have been far more circumspect. Vons spokesperson Sandra Calderon has made limited statements to the press, and a few joint statements have been released from the three grocery chains. Regarding healthcare and pensions, the chains are framing the debate as a move of economic necessity to stay viable.

"As responsible companies, we are seeking nothing more than a fair contract that will help us to remain competitive in the face of soaring healthcare and benefit costs, and increased competition from lower-cost operators," read a statement from Ralph's president John Burgon. "All three of us want to continue offering comprehensive benefits to our existing employees and their families, but it must be within the context of the current marketplace."

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