PHILADELPHIA – At a Feb. 12 rally at a local Acme supermarket, union and community members had a strong message for shoppers here: “Don’t shop at Acme.”

Pointing at the store, Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Central Labor Council, said, “Corporate America is right there. If we don’t stop them now, they will be doing the same thing to workers here – taking away our health care benefits.” Acme is owned by Albertsons, which along with Kroger/Ralphs, locked out its Southern California workers Oct. 11, when Safeway/Vons workers went on strike to protect their health benefits.

Two grocery workers from Los Angeles, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, spoke to the crowd. Cynthia Hernandez has worked for Albertsons for five years, since she was 16.

“I was able to support my baby daughter,” Hernandez said. “Now I must depend on food stamps. The company wants to reduce our health coverage by 50 percent and make us pay more for it. It’s not fair. Don’t shop at Acme. Let the billionaires suffer.”

Tracy Richardson told the rally she has worked for Albertsons for 12 years. “We don’t make a lot of money,” she said. “Eighty percent of the workers are part-time, 24 to 36 hours a week at $10 an hour, $19,000 a year. I can’t make it without health care benefits.”

Pat Gillespie, representing the Building Trades, noted that the grocery chains had made $9.7 billion in profits in 2002. A spokesman for the Communication Workers of America recalled, “We won our battle with Verizon because of union solidarity,” and promised financial support for Local 770.

Henry Nicholas, president of health care workers union 1199C, said, “When workers have no health care, our members have no jobs.” He pleaded with workers to “stay out of the Bushes” in the 2004 election.

Although Acme workers presently have a decent contract in Philadelphia, Wendell W. Young III, president of UFCW Local 1776, worried about the threat to the entire labor movement if Albertsons gets away with taking health care benefits from its Southern California workers.

Merrilee Milstein, AFL-CIO regional director, called for union solidarity. The rally ended with Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local President Thurston Hyman leading a prayer for workers’ rights. While a delegation including Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) spoke with the store manager, a shopper stopped to ask why the crowd was there. When she heard the facts, she said, “That’s outrageous. I’ll take back what I bought.”

Volunteers signed up for informational picketing at Acme markets. Hernandez and Richardson expressed their gratitude to all who came out to support their struggle.

The author can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net.

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