Thursday, May 19, 2011

Plain Dealer, May 7, 2011, Saturday

Plain Dealer

May 7, 2011, Saturday

Plain Dealer

Rite Aid workers strike to keep current health coverage

You know where you could find Reatha Tolliver on her days off during the last two months: picketing against her employer, Rite Aid.

Tolliver works at a different Rite Aid store, but she has gladly taken on what she calls a "part-time job" picketing a store in University Heights, one of several unionized stores on strike.

Like many members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 880, Tolliver believes the picket lines are her best hope for retaining her health care benefits. The union has gone without a contract since April 2010 and went on strike against Rite Aid on March 14, largely over medical coverage.

Although the strike involves only six of 61 Rite Aid stores in Northeast Ohio, it illustrates how labor disputes have the potential to turn into public debates amid public concern about job security and economic inequality.

The young Rite Aid strike also has led quickly to a number of court cases and a complaint to federal labor officials.

The union says that, in lieu of higher wages, it negotiated over the years a union-controlled health plan with low annual deductibles and few co-pays. They say Rite Aid officials want to shift these workers to a company plan that would put health coverage out of the reach of most workers, who are low- or moderate wage earners.

Rite Aid officials say the company has a right to control health care costs by offering a different plan.

Picketers at these six stores have encouraged customers to shop elsewhere -- to move their prescriptions from Rite Aid to CVS, Giant Eagle and Dave's Supermarkets.

Dave's and Giant Eagle declined to say whether they have received any Rite Aid prescriptions. CVS did not respond to questions. Regardlesss, union members know that public opinion is their greatest asset. They hope to tap into public sentiment about what they call corporate greed at the expense of workers.

"My annual deductible would go from $250 to $1,200," said Tolliver, a 20-year employee, who is a member of the union's negotiating team. "I can't afford that. I'll have no health care."

Ashley Flower, spokeswoman at Rite Aid headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., said the compensation package is competitive.

"We're just asking those who use our health plan to pay their fair share toward the costs," Flower said.

So far the union says its approach is working.

Members can point to a statement from a company lawyer early in the strike. The laywer told a Lake County court that sales at a Painesville store had fallen by nearly 35 percent from the same time a year earlier once the picket line went up.

The union also can point to anecdotal evidence: only a few customers in stores that usually see a steady stream of shoppers. The company also has mailed $5 coupons to some customers, accompanied by letters from individual store managers.

"We just can't agree that their members should get free health insurance when many of our other associates and most Americans all have to pay a share of their health insurance costs," read one of the letters.

Rite Aid officials say the strike is having minimal effect.

"Our Cleveland market has been struggling for some time, and the union's decision to strike makes a bad situation even worse," Flower said. "The union is only hurting its members and other associates by telling people to pull their prescriptions and go elsewhere. A loss of business can result in a loss of hours [for employees] and possibly even lost jobs."

Shortly after the strike began, Rite Aid sought injunctions in Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain counties basically limiting picketers to the sidewalk. The court denied the company in Cuyahoga, sided with Rite Aid in Lorain and granted limited access in Lake on a temporary basis. The union continues to fight that case.

The company said it had to seek court orders after customers complained picketers were blocking doors.

The workers said they doubt that customers saw them in such ominous terms. More importantly, they said they needed that face-to-face access with customers to make their case.

"We're the ones who deal with the customers," Mahoney said. "Many of them know us by name. We're the ones who have offered them products and made this company money."

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging, among other things, that store managers threatened to fire an employee unless the employee voted in favor of the company's contract proposal. The NLRB will hear the case May 25.

Meanwhile, picketing continues.

On a rainy Wednesday last week, Tolliver and fellow Rite Aid worker Tanya Mahoney stood outside the store at 13470 Cedar Road, in the University Corners shopping plaza in University Heights. Both work at other East Side stores, but they usually join the picket line at this store.

(The other Rite Aid stores on strike are: 5795 State Road, Parma; 2323 Broadview Road, Cleveland; 180 North State St., Painesville; 2709 Broadway Ave., Lorain; and 2853 Grove Ave., Lorain.)

Tolliver wore a hooded yellow rain poncho. Her sign read: "Rite Aid Unfair. On Strike. Don't Shop." Mahoney wore a blue rain jacket. A chorus of passing cars honked in affirmation. The women waved.

Both said they have used their individual stories to win customers over. They said the company has tried to make them appear unreasonable or even irrational for wanting to hold on to the current health care plan.

"We always had the right to choose," Mahoney said. "The health benefit was compensation for the small pay."

When her husband got cancer -- the disease later claimed his life -- it was a relief knowing that the medical bills were paid, she said. A few years ago, during a break in working for Rite Aid, Mahoney had an illness that placed her in a nursing home.

"I can tell you what it means not to have medical coverage," said Mahoney, who has worked for Rite Aid a total of 14 years. "I had to file for bankruptcy."

The women said they are compelled to fight because jobs like theirs are vanishing, even as the retail sector has begun recovering after the recession. Few jobs are full time and offer benefits like health care. They are convinced that if they lose the current health plan, it will be difficult to get coverage again.

The union's approach to getting a contract is often referred to as a "comprehensive campaign." Such labor actions rely on building alliances with other entities that have some link to the employer. They can include customers, suppliers, employees -- even those in other states or countries.

"They are doing multifaceted actions involving both the members and allies," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. "Ultimately their goal is to get the company to the point where the cost of not settling with the union is greater than the cost of settling."

One of the most effective uses of this approach occurred in Northeast Ohio, said Bronfenbrenner, who studied the Black Flag campaign launched by the unions representing Bridgestone/Firestone workers.

The Black Flag is used to disqualify a driver from an auto race, and the union adopted it as a symbol of its two-year campaign, which eventually spread to more than 40 countries by the time the Steelworkers union settled a contract with the company in 1996.

The alliances the union made ranged from one with GM-Saturn, which offered customers the option of replacing Bridgestone/Firestone tires on new vehicles to union members from Ohio making alliances with locals throughout the United States to pass out black flags at auto races around the country.

The Rite Aid workers in Greater Cleveland have already shown their willingness to build alliances. A few traveled to California to picket with workers at a Rite Aid distribution center in the Mojave Desert, said Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the union representing the warehouse workers. He said workers had won the right five years ago to negotiate a contract, but that the company had refused until last week. The California union picketed two Rite Aid stores several miles away from the warehouse as part of its effort to win a contract.

Flower, the Rite Aid spokeswoman, said the budding alliance between Cleveland and California didn't lead to a contract.

"They are absolutely unrelated," she said. "We bargain in good faith with each union that represents our associates with the goal of reaching a contract that is fair for all involved."

As both examples show, Local 880's approach to winning a contract could take months.

"The Rite Aid workers play a critical role in this campaign," said Bronfenbrenner. "They have to keep together. If they ever concede, then there is no fight left."

Responded Tolliver: "We have rights, and we are ready to stand up for what we believe in."