The Southern California grocery strikers are true working-class heroes. Seventy thousand held fast to their strike over four and a half months, a remarkable achievement in the current “jobless recovery.” Many had to find other jobs to make mortgage, rent or car payments, yet 20,000 were still walking picket lines the day the strike ended.

What kept them going was not simply courage, although they had their share of it. It was the urgent desire to hold onto health benefits, not just for themselves, but for the generation of grocery clerks, baggers and meat cutters to come. It was a heroic defense within a system spiraling out of control – one that, ultimately, they could not win.

When the strike started, store workers faced a proposal that would have forced them to pay $95 a week for health insurance after three years. Since three-quarters of the workers are part-timers, and their average weekly pay only $312, health care would have been beyond their reach.

In the new agreement, the returning strikers will eventually pay some money for insurance, although not the drastic payments the stores originally demanded. But for those hired from now on, health care will be just a dream. Safeway, Albertsons and Krogers will contribute just $1.10 per hour for their health benefits, compared to $3.80 for the existing workforce.

In just a few years, those lower-tier workers will be the majority. Most will be unable to qualify for benefits – who will make up the difference between $1.10 and the actual cost of insurance, which is rising at 15 percent a year? They’ll join the 48 million Americans who have no health care because they can’t afford it. But these new additions will be union workers, in jobs that for generations supported a middle-class standard of living.

It’s not just the extreme poor now who must go without medical care. Even those with stable, “decent” jobs increasingly can’t get it either.

Throughout the strike, Safeway, Albertsons and Krogers said they needed the cut because competitor Wal-Mart, with expansion plans throughout the state, has no unions, pays low wages, and contributes so little towards health care that when its workers get sick, they show up in the county hospital emergency room.

This is the future for new workers in Southern California grocery stores – the Wal-Martization of health care for California working families.

No wonder that so many workers held out on strike for so long. And no wonder that workers in stores in Northern California, as well as Washington D.C., Washington State, Hawaii, and Colorado, all of whom face the same companies across the bargaining table later this year, are gearing up for similar labor wars.

And it’s not just grocery stores. “We’re expecting a major confrontation with hotel chains over health care costs when our contract comes up this summer,” says Mike Casey, president of San Francisco’s Local 2 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees. The Service Employees Union will be negotiating with hospital chains in all major West Coast cities this year, and health care costs will be the number one issue. If the union can’t fend off similar demands, those who provide the health care will be unable themselves to afford it.

The current system forces workers and their families to fight their employers, to decide who will pay premiums rising at 15 percent a year. It virtually guarantees war after labor war.

This is a uniquely American dilemma. The Southern California grocery strike could never take place in Europe, Canada, or Mexico, because there are no premiums for private health care insurance there to fight over. These countries have national health care programs, in which taxes pay for medical care for all people, as their right.

Californians took a step last year towards a solution to this problem, when the legislature passed SB-2. Under the law, large employers, like Wal-Mart, will have to provide health care coverage for their employees. They won’t be able to undercut their competitors by forcing their workers into the emergency room.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, however, has already promised employers an initiative to repeal it. If the governor wins, strikes like the one in Los Angeles will become more frequent and bitter. Employers will demand benefit cuts in order to compete, and workers will either have to give up health care or fight.

In the end, only a single-payer system like that sponsored by California State Sen. Sheila Kuehl can bring a permanent end to these terrible conflicts. Kuehl points out that if all the current health care dollars spent in California were used to pay for a single system, instead of on wasteful competing private insurance plans, every state resident could be guaranteed high quality health care.

The grocery strikers deserve thanks for their effort to preserve as much coverage as possible under the present broken system. But broken it is. We should not ask tens of thousands more to make similar sacrifices in its defense.

David Bacon is a labor journalist based in the Bay Area. He can be reached at dbacon@igc.org.