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Wednesday, Nov 3, 2010, 8:42 pm

Students Charge Rite Aid Execs With ‘Sweatshop Abuse’ as Campaign Expands

BY Rand Wilson

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On the Friday before Halloween, college students in eight cities greeted Rite Aid's customers with leaflets describing the "Sweatshop House of Horrors" for workers at the country's third-largest retail drugstore chain. 

The actions were sponsored by one of the nation's most active student organizations – United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a nationwide network of more than 150 affiliate student organizations.  

"These action's were just the kick-off to USAS's campaign to stop Rite Aid's persistent pattern of worker rights abuses," said USAS International Campaigns Coordinator Teresa Cheng. Cheng says students are especially concerned about employee abuse at Rite Aid's Southwest Regional Distribution Center in Lancaster, Calif., where 550 workers have spent more than two years trying to negotiate a first contract agreement with Rite Aid. 

Student activists held actions at Rite Aid stores in Boston, Mass., State College, Pa.; Palo Alto and Los Angeles, Calif.; Ithaca, N.Y.; Seattle; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Washington, D.C. About 50 students and union activists participated. Pictures from the student action in Boston are here.

Rite Aid executives recently proposed a new scheme in Lancaster that would overcharge employees for their share of healthcare insurance – forcing workers to pay up to 28 times more than the company's increased cost for a worker's share of insurance.  

USAS leaders have repeatedly contacted Rite Aid executives to seek a constructive path for resolving these disputes, yet Rite Aid executives have been slow to respond and denied USAS requests for a tour of the facility. 

Another by-product of the ILWU's campaign is an emerging coalition of all the Rite Aid unions.

Where Rite Aid store employees are unionized, their unions -- UFCW and 1199 -- report major problems with management on all kinds of contract issues. It must be even worse at the not-yet-union stores, because one of the consistent themes in the USAS chapter report backs was the positive response that students got from many Rite Aid workers and even a few managers.

A student in Palo Alto commented that she'd "never seen retail workers so supportive of a campaign, even if they feared active support could jeopardize their jobs." When students went inside the store in Los Angeles to give the store manager their letter, "He agreed with everything we said and told us he'd relay our message up to headquarters," the local USAS organizer reported.

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Rand Wilson is policy and communications director at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.

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