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In late September, management at Rite Aid’s giant Lancaster, Calif., distribution center proposed major changes to the employees’ health insurance plan. The takeaway proposal is the latest chapter in a two-year struggle by the Rite Aid workers there to win a first contract that will provide the good jobs that workers in California’s Antelope Valley so desperately need.
Working with their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the workers’ rank-and-file negotiating committee found that the proposed change would overcharge them 28 times more than Rite Aid’s actual increase in the plan’s cost. Knowing that the proposed plan would be a step backwards for many and that it could affect thousands of other Rite Aid employees nationwide, workers have begun mobilizing to stop it.
Throughout the Rite Aid campaign, union leaders in Lancaster have strategically linked their workplace actions with a broader national campaign for a good contract. It’s led to a budding coalition of Rite Aid unions that includes the UFCW (with Rite Aid members at stores in California, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington State), 1199 SEIU (with members at stores in New York City) and the Teamsters (with members at distribution centers in Waterford, Mich., Rome, N.Y. and Poca, West Va.).
Pressure on board of directors
The Lancaster negotiating committee drafted a letter to the Rite Aid board of directors and in consultation with the other unions, organizers set October 6 as a “day of action” to deliver the letter. At the Lancaster distribution center, workers held a lunch-time march out of the cafeteria to show management their determination to stop the healthcare scam.
- In New York City, Rite Aid workers from UFCW Local 1776 and 1199 SEIU were joined by East Coast Longshore union members and students at a lively protest in Manhattan where Rite Aid board member Philip Satre was honored as “Director of the Year” by the Director’s Exchange. Supporters passed out flyers to dinner guests documenting Satre’s poor performance as a director at Rite Aid (to see the flyer, click here).
- In Los Angeles, students, retirees and union members blew whistles in the pouring rain outside the offices of Rite Aid board member Jonathan Sokoloff. The rowdy crowd of supporters suggested that Sokoloff — who makes $100 million a year — could afford to do more to stop the healthcare rip-off at Rite Aid!
- In Bellingham, Wash., Rite Aid workers belonging to UFCW and other union members and students went to the office of board member James Donald. They blew their whistles 28 times — the amount Rite Aid is trying to overcharge employees for health insurance.
More in store for Rite Aid
At a raucous Rite Aid annual meeting in Harrisburg, Pa., last June, the AFL-CIO’s Office of Investment released a briefing paper on Rite Aid’s poor performance that singled-out CEO Mary Sammons for excessive pay. The federation has since launched a campaign for an annual shareholders’ “say on pay” advisory vote. (For more about the annual meeting, read: “Workers Rally to Make It Right at Rite Aid.”)
In late September, the ILWU released a second scathing report on Rite Aid’s mismanagement timed with the company’s release of second quarter financial results. It cited the daunting challenges facing Rite Aid management: The company has reported losses for 12 straight quarters and was named one of the “15 Most Hated Companies In America” by the financial news and opinion blog 24/7 Wall Street. (See “Warehouse Union Slams Rite Aid Mismanagement”)
The movement by Rite Aid workers across the country has also gained the attention of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). In August, USAS wrote to new CEO John Standley, calling on him “to bring the negotiations in Lancaster to a successful conclusion.”
Rite Aid workers across the country want the company to succeed. But solving the company’s financial problems on the backs of its hard-working employees is the wrong way to turn the troubled company around.
Rand Wilson is an AFL-CIO communications coordinator.
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Rand Wilson is an organizer and chief of staff at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.