Ron Radosh

Why Are My Supermarket Workers Threatening to Strike? A Surprising Answer!

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As we went shopping at our local Giant supermarket — the major chain in the Washington, D.C., area — my wife and I were confronted by a picket line of workers announcing the threat of a strike if their demands were not met. They gave us a two-sided leaflet. One side of it depicts Rosie the Riveter (why this image for supermarket workers?) with a clenched fist, and the banner headline “Standing Strong with Giant and Safeway Workers!” What were they complaining about, as they face upcoming contract negotiations? Better working conditions? Better hours? More vacation time? More time off? The answer: none of the above. The other side has a photo of one worker, a veteran employee who worked at Giant for almost three decades, telling us that the concerns “are of course the wages but more importantly keeping our good healthcare benefits.” Another, a seafood clerk of 15 years, tells us that his issue is “maintaining our health benefits for not just full timers but part timers also.”

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Close-up of union logo on artwork.

They were protesting Obamacare! It seems that at first some workers were transferred to part-time from full-time positions a month or so back. I recall talking to someone at the meat department a while ago who informed us that the chain was reducing hours and hiring only part-timers. That’s why he was understaffed and we had to wait quite a while for service.

Now, as negotiations are coming, Giant and Safeway management have announced that all part-timers will lose their regular health insurance, and that only full-time employees will continue to receive it. Other chains, such as Home Depot, did the same a month or two ago. Economics writer Robert J. Samuelson explained that “the ACA may cause some companies to limit hiring or cut hours to escape the law’s requirement to provide health insurance. (The law exempts firms with fewer than 50 full-time workers; full-time is 30 hours a week or more.)”

As one of the picketing workers we spoke to told us, “We want our regular employee health insurance. We don’t want to be forced onto the Obamacare exchanges.” Now I assume that since they can’t get onto the official government website, they do not know whether, as the administration assures everyone, they can keep their own policies. (They can’t, of course, if the government has provided a better policy for them that the user is told they must accept.) These workers, or their union chiefs, have decided in advance that whatever policy the supermarket chain owners want their part-timers to accept, it will not be better.

Of course they are correct. How could a healthy 18- to 25-year-old part-timer (and many of them working want these part-time jobs as they go to college or train for a better and more fulfilling full-time job elsewhere) want a policy that will cost more, have higher deductibles, and make them pay for provisions in which they are not interested if given a choice to purchase or obtain a regular policy? In this case, one suspects that the union healthcare program in which they were previously enrolled was quite comprehensive, had a low deductible, and covered much, much more than they would ever get in a comparable Obamacare exchange.

In his devastating column today about the failure of Obamacare, Charles Krauthammer points out that “Obamacare renders illegal (with exceedingly narrow ‘grandfathered,’ exceptions) the continuation of any insurance plan deemed by Washington regulators not to meet their arbitrary standards for adequacy. Example: No maternity care? You are terminated.” He is writing about those large segments of our population who have received cancellation letters from insurance companies about their individually purchased insurance policies. But the point is the same — if those who lose employee health insurance they once had go into an exchange, they will be forced to purchase policies with provisions they do not need or want.  He adds: “most of the 19 million people with individual insurance will have to find new and likely more expensive coverage. And that doesn’t even include the additional millions who are sure to lose their employer-provided coverage.”

These Giant and Safeway workers are among that group. And they don’t like what they are faced with.

These are only two supermarket firms in the D.C. area. But their protest and threat of a strike bode ill for the Obama administration. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates were key administration allies and supporters of Obamacare from the get-go. Now that they see what it means for their members, they don’t like it one bit. Did it not occur to the union leadership that the program might just not be good and that it might deprive its members of policies they were used to and liked?

They, like all of us, have learned that there is no free lunch. The disaster that is Obamacare may now lead to a rupture in the Democratic-trade union alliance. Call it as Krauthammer does, “subterfuge,” “mendacity” or “liberal paternalism” — or call it, as I do, the failure of liberalism and liberal ideology. One way or the other, the model of the liberal welfare state’s ever expanding grasp is collapsing as we watch. Good riddance!