Leave No Worker Behind

Cynthia Hernandez, a petite and pretty 21-year-old grocery worker, felt exhilarated, rather than weary, after traveling by bus from Los Angeles to Northern California. Riding with her were her 2-year-old daughter, 50 other union members and religious leaders of all denominations from Southern California.

She was part of the "Grocery Workers' Justice Pilgrimage," representing 70,000 workers who have been striking Safeway and have been locked out from other Southern Californian supermarkets for the last four months. They're struggling to keep their health-care benefits, a problem that will eventually affect many middle-class workers.

The pilgrimage journeyed north to persuade Steven Burd, president, chairman and CEO of Safeway, who lives in Alamo, to return to the negotiating table. Knowing that Burd is a devout evangelical Christian, religious leaders hoped to "change his heart" and to appeal to the faith he professes.

They also came to deliver 10,000 cards -- written by shoppers, children and congregants -- that asked Burd to resume bargaining until labor and management reach a fair settlement that protects the health care of all workers.

As the bus arrived in Alamo on a chilly but sunny morning Wednesday, they were warmly greeted by Northern Californian religious leaders and community supporters. Together, they held a prayer vigil in front of Alamo's Safeway.

"Mr. Burd, lift up your eyes and see the people who are suffering, " said a rabbi. "We need affordable health care," said a minister. After each religious leader spoke, the crowd of several hundred chanted, "Do not close your ears to the cry of the needy."

The 4-month-old strike has, in fact, devastated the lives of many workers, some of whom have lost their homes and had their cars repossessed. Many can no longer feed their families and are deeply in debt. "I don't know how I'll pay the rent next month," Hernandez told me. "I have nothing left."

Then, the peaceful crowd marched toward Burd's home, chanting "Health care now!" To their delight, passing drivers honked in solidarity and a few neighbors rushed out of magnificent homes to offer unexpected words of support.

Because only a small delegation of religious leaders were allowed to climb the private road to the gated Alamo Ridge community, the striking workers never saw the wooded forests and rolling hills that shelter the 15 families who live in this exclusive enclave.

Stationed at the gate was Guy Worth, who would only describe himself as "Mr. Burd's personal representative," but who turned out to be a Safeway security guard. He received the bins of cards and then, much to his evident discomfort, found himself drawn into a prayer circle with religious leaders.

On the way back, I asked Hernandez what we in Northern California should understand about the grocery workers' strike.

"What happens to us," she said, "will happen to everyone else in the country. If our strike is broken, then employers will know they can end health care for all workers."

The grocery workers oppose Safeway's effort to raise the amount they must contribute to their health-care costs. The union also refuses to accept a "two-tier" system in which future employees will receive lower wages and benefits than current workers.

With a turnover rate of 30 percent a year, grocery workers would soon be reduced to the kind of subsistence-level pay earned by nonunion workers at Wal-Mart, which, says Safeway, is why the corporation, to stay competitive, must curtail wages and benefits.

"It's a race to the bottom," said Hernandez, as she wheeled her sleeping daughter in her stroller. "If we 70,000 workers don't get decent wages and health-care benefits, some of us will end up on welfare and most of us will use the public health care system. And who's going to pay for all these public services? The taxpayers, of course! Well, I don't want to live like that. Why shouldn't our employer pay a living wage and health benefits so that we can retain our dignity as workers?"

The Rev. Carol Been, a Lutheran minister in the Bay Area, echoed Hernandez's sense of urgency. "There's a race to see which employer can pay the least to its workers and the real issue, of course, is health care."

The striking workers certainly know that. So, by the way, did voters in New Hampshire's primary, who told pollsters that health care was even more important than the economy and the war in Iraq.

Workers such as Hernandez are desperately trying to hang on to their middle-class dignity. They deserve our support. There, but for good fortune, go the rest of us -- and probably sooner than we may realize.


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