Rite Aid Workers’ Strike in Cleveland Sparks Nationwide Protest

Rand Wilson

Last Friday, more than two dozen Rite Aid drugstores across the country had some unexpected visitors. Activists in 10 states converged on 30 stores on April 1 to protest the company’s unfair labor practices and management’s efforts to impose unaffordable healthcare costs on employees.

Workers at six Cleveland Rite Aid stores — whose employees are members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 880—have been on strike since March 14. After nearly a year of fruitless contract negotiations, the strike started because Rite Aid management committed dozens of unfair labor practices, violating members’ rights through illegal threats, harassment, retaliation, surveillance and refusing to bargain in good faith. 

Rite Aid resorted to these illegal tactics in Ohio as part of a nationwide effort to convince workers to move into a more expensive company health insurance plan. Many Rite Aid retail employees are paid such low wages that if their union accepted Rite Aid’s plan, they would be forced to decline company coverage and instead rely on taxpayer provided benefits such as Medicaid for their medical needs.

According to UFCW Local 880’s Carl Ivka, Rite Aid wants to shift the cost of health care benefits onto the backs of the workers and onto the backs of the taxpayers in order to help recoup huge losses caused by poor management decisions. Yet the poor performance of the company executives has not affected their compensation in the least. The new president of Rite Aid received a compensation package that is higher than that of his predecessor, one that pays him $4.5 million, an amount that translates into $2,163.46 per hour.”

Ohio is hardly unique. More than 500 Rite Aid employees united in the ILWU (longshore and warehouse workers’ union) at the company’s giant distribution center in Lancaster, Calif., have taken a strong stand against a similar cost shifting proposal that would force workers to pay a significantly higher portion of the premium for their health insurance coverage. The workers in Lancaster have been struggling to win a first contract for nearly three years.

Rite Aid’s bid to shift the burden of its employee’s health insurance benefits onto taxpayers is not limited to Ohio or California. Management has proposed or implemented similar schemes in cities across the country.

Coalition growing

As we saw with the struggle in Wisconsin, as workers’ resistance becomes more militant, support and solidarity from other workers within the Rite Aid chain and throughout the labor movement grows. One example: UFCW Local 880 sent Ivka, its Vice President and Director of Collective Bargaining, and three striking Rite Aid members from northeast Ohio to the port town of San Pedro near Los Angeles to show their support for California’s Rite Aid warehouse workers.

Other UFCW unions, including Local 1360 in New Jersey and Local 876 in Detroit, also participated in the National Day of Action by leafleting, talking with customers and visiting with store managers to protest what is happening in Cleveland and Lancaster as well as their own stores.

In San Pedro, Rite Aid warehouse workers and supporters launched an innovative pinpoint” boycott of two busy Rite Aid stores. The ILWU kicked off a plan to encourage union members to pull their prescriptions until Rite Aid agrees to respect its employees. Last year ILWU members spent $5.85 million in all Rite Aid stores in California and $1.8 million at Rite Aid’s two stores in San Pedro.

The launch of the pinpoint boycott, actions on the picket line in Cleveland and events at Rite Aid’s stores across the country are part of a third National Day of Action by locals and coalition supporters. In addition to the April 1, previous days of action were on December 15, 2010 and February 14

Last year, UFCW Local 1776, SEIU 1199, Teamsters and ILWU also participated in a joint rally and action at Rite Aid’s annual shareholder meeting in Harrisburg, Penn. 

The coalition has received strong support from the AFL-CIO, United Students Against Sweatshops and Jobs with Justice. The unions have recently revamped their Internet presence with a new Rite Aid Workers United” Facebook page and Twitter account. To support the coalition, ILWU has set up a campaign website and a toll free hotline at 18559326926.

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Rand Wilson is an organizer and chief of staff at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.

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