It is understandable that members of United Food and Commercial Workers want to protect the benefits their union has negotiated in a sector of the economy that is becoming dominated by nonunion grocery chains.
That's why 5,000 employees walked off the job earlier this month at Raley's and its Nob Hill Foods subsidiary, largely because the West Sacramento-based company says it is no longer able to cover health benefits for retirees eligible for Medicare.
Yet as this strike continues into its second week, UFCW members and leaders need to ask themselves some hard questions: Is it realistic to expect Raley's, a valley business that has lost market share to Wal-Mart and other non-unionized chains, to keep providing a benefit that few employers offer any more? And if an extended strike causes Raley's to slip further, doesn't that play into the hands of its non-unionized competition? Will that really help the cause of preserving grocery jobs as a middle-class occupation?
We acknowledge that Medicare isn't as comprehensive as the retiree health plans that a dwindling number of private employers continue to offer. As Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute noted to a Sacramento Bee reporter, Medicare only covers about 60 percent of costs on average, which is why some seniors buy a supplement -- "Medigap" coverage.
Still, Medicare remains, overall, an effective social insurance program that millions of seniors appreciate. It is not as though Raley's is proposing to toss retirees into the void. Union members also must recognize the competition Raley's faces from grocery chains that offer their employees little or no health benefits, and nothing for those who have retired.
According to the Employee Benefit Research institute, fewer than 18 percent of private sector employees in the entire U.S. economy get such coverage from their employers.
Clearly, some Raley's workers think the union leadership is being unreasonable, given that they have crossed the picket lines to continue working. With little doubt, some are upset the UFCW didn't let members vote on Raley's "last and final" offer before striking. Although union members authorized a strike, the vote was taken back in mid-May.
We acknowledge the difficulty of taking sides in this type of labor dispute, given the paucity of information. Raley's is a private company, so it is difficult to know if its finances are as dire as the company claims. But the company has already closed stores, including locations in Ceres and on Orangeburg Avenue in Modesto.
There's a deal to be struck here, and it needs to happen soon, or else Raley's and its employees will watch their business go elsewhere during Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season. For that to happen, both sides need to start talking again. If the union is to give on retiree health benefits, Raley's will have to be willing to offer concessions, possibly on management of the health plans offered to existing workers.
For the long-term health of Raley's and its employees, we urge both sides to settle their differences and end this strike.