SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of Northern California grocery workers and supporters gathered in front of the Safeway store at Church and Market streets Oct. 15 to press their demand that health care coverage be maintained in the new contract being negotiated with area supermarket giants. Besides Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger Co. are in talks with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The contract covering 30,000 Bay Area supermarket workers expired Sept. 11 but has been extended to Dec. 8. Also on the table are wages and grievance procedures, but as in virtually all labor negotiations today, health coverage heads the list.

“This is the beginning of a labor and community campaign to let the companies know they are not going to make workers pay for health care,” Tim Paulsen, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, told the crowd of union members and community supporters. The demonstrators responded with shouts of, “If Safeway cuts health care, we’ll shop elsewhere,” and “Customers are coming through, Safeway, we’re watching you!”

Joining Paulsen in addressing the crowd from the back of a truck in the supermarket’s parking lot were San Francisco Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Jake McGoldrick, Father Louis Vitale of St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church, and representatives of UNITE HERE Local 2, who have been locked out of 14 of the city’s biggest hotels. The two groups of workers are combating similar employer demands for health cutbacks, and are actively supporting each other’s campaigns.

Demonstrators erupted in cheers as Father Vitale, a consistent supporter of labor struggles, declared his willingness to go to jail if necessary to uphold the right of families to health coverage.

McGoldrick, a former roofer and Labor Council delegate from the teachers union, and Ammiano, a long-time champion of labor issues on the Board of Supervisors, pledged their continuing support and called on Safeway to deal fairly with its workers.

Marchers — many of whom wore bandages smeared with mock blood or bore crutches — then shouldered a wooden coffin painted with the legend, “Uninsured!” for a march up Market Street. At the Cala supermarket at 18th and Collingwood streets they paused for a “die-in,” with several workers lying down in front of the store and being covered with a tarp also lettered, “Uninsured.”

The Labor Council, which organized the rally together with eight area UFCW locals, said some 60,000 supermarket customers have signed boycott pledge cards. Unions and community organizations are bringing the campaign to tens of thousands more as they continue to build solidarity with the grocery workers’ struggle.

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