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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jun 30, 2011, 1:48 pm

Rite Aid Workers Continue Calls for Affordable Healthcare at Shareholders Meeting

BY Rand Wilson, AFL-CIO Communications Coordinator

Rite Aid workers rally in Harrisburg, Pa.   (Photo by William Epstein, UFCW Local 1776)

Rite Aid workers from seven states last week rallied against management's plan to make employees pay more for their healthcare and to show support for a 15-week "unfair labor practice" strike by Rite Aid employees at seven stores in Cleveland, Ohio. With strong support by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, United Students Against Sweatshops and the Harrisburg-area labor movement, the spirited rally took place immediately before the company's annual shareholder meeting on June 23, 2011.
 
After the rally (video below), about 15 Rite Aid workers and union reps attended the shareholder meeting to voice their concerns directly to Rite Aid's Board of Directors and top executives. Inside the meeting, I presented a shareholder proposal opposing management's policy of paying the tax liabilities on its golden parachute deals with senior executives.
 
Christina Frymier, a striking Rite Aid worker from Cleveland, was the first to address CEO John Standley and the board of directors during the question and answer period. "I'm on strike because Rite Aid is trying to make our healthcare so expensive that nobody will be able to afford it. Rite Aid does most of its business with customers who are very much like me." She continued:

When I talk to customers and tell them what Rite Aid is doing, they are angry, upset. They take their prescriptions and their business to CVS and other pharmacies. If the people who shop at Rite Aid's 4,700 stores learn that management is trying to deny health care to its employees, Rite Aid's reputation will be harmed. Do you really want to allow your management to continue on a path that will hurt Rite Aid's business nationwide?

Frymier was followed by UFCW Local 1776 member Donna Weber, a 16-year veteran at Rite Aid's Tobyhanna, Pa., store. Weber, a pharmacy technician, described how the company has cut staffing to dangerously low levels.
 
Weber compared the executive's huge salaries and benefits – including free use of the corporation's jet for their personal use – to the reality she faces in the store. "Many days I'm working on the phone with insurance companies to resolve a customer's prescription problem while other customers are waiting to be checked out," Weber said. "These jobs take a lot of concentration.  It seems that if we can afford these high executive salaries and a free jet plane we should be able to adequately staff our stores."
 
Referring to ongoing negotiations for a new contract, Weber said, "We shouldn't have to choose between health care or food for our families."
 
Weber was followed by Local 1776 President Wendell W. Young, IV, who described how 3,000 Local 1776 Rite Aid members in Pennsylvania have worked for nearly three years under the terms of an extended contract because the company is insisting that workers assume an impossibly high portion of the cost of their health care benefits.
 
"We are calling on Rite Aid to bargain in good faith to reach agreements on new contracts," said Young, who called the company's behavior, "wrong at a time when the loyal men and women of Rite Aid have worked so hard to help the company weather this economic down turn and contributed to its growth throughout the past four decades."
 
"The solidarity rally and action at the shareholders meeting in Harrisburg sent a message to the Board of Directors and top managers that shifting the burden of healthcare benefits to Rite Aid workers—and taxpayers—won't solve their financial problems or make the company profitable," said UFCW Local 880's director of collective bargaining Carl Ivka, who is leading the strike at seven Rite Aid stores in Ohio.
 
Rite Aid workers from the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, SEIU 1199, Teamsters and UFCW have attended three previous shareholder meetings.
 
Rite Aid workers' union summit

The day before the annual meeting, Rite Aid union leaders met for a national summit to share information and develop common strategies for dealing with the company's plan to shift health insurance costs to workers and taxpayers.
 
The meeting was attended by Rite Aid leaders from the 1199 SEIU, International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), RWDSU, UFCW Local 21, UFCW Local 880, UFCW Local 1360, UFCW Local 1776, and the UFCW International. Also on hand were supporters from United Students Against Sweatshops, Jobs with Justice, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO's Center for Strategic Research.
 
In conjunction with the summit meeting, two leading workers' rights groups released an "Investor Alert" on the mismanagement and corporate greed that has led to Rite Aid's poor performance. The report is available from Jobs with Justice at  and United Students Against Sweatshops.
 
Summit participants also celebrated the first contract victory by Rite Aid workers, who formed their union with ILWU Local 26 at the Lancaster, California Distribution Center more than five years ago. ILWU Organizing Director Peter Olney reported on the struggle by the workers to win their collective bargaining rights and a first contract.
 
"Winning our first union contract required a comprehensive campaign with customers and the community on the outside and strong leadership and rank and file action on the inside. Working together, we overcame vicious anti-union attacks and more than a year of surface bargaining by Rite Aid management.  It took an incredible amount of perseverance, determination and creativity to win, but thanks to the support from everyone in this room and many more locals that couldn't be here, we did it."
 
Pictures from the summit meeting and the march and rally at the shareholders meeting are viewable on Flickr here.

(Additional videos are here and here.)

Rand Wilson is communications coordinator at the AFL-CIO Organizing Dept.'s Center for Strategic Research. He has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator in the United States since the 1980s. For more information about Wilson, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rand_Wilson

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