Westlake Village, California -- a predominantly wealthy suburb of Los Angeles (mean housing price in the mid $500k range), just inside the borders of LA County, where I work. Tacone, a trendy and expensive "healthy" sandwich shop at the Westlake Promenade. Lunchtime on a Friday. I'm in line to order a California turkey wrap, salivating in anticipation of fresh turkey and crisp vegetables wrapped in a homemade tortilla, all for only $8. Behind me, an older man of leisure, talking to his absurdly young, apparently recently be-boob-jobbed wife:
Sherman Oaks, California -- like most of the San Fernando Valley (just outside of LA proper), a mix of the wealthy and the not-so-well-off, where I live. Trader Joe's, and independent food store chain, a little pricey, and the shop of choice for the well-off granola sect -- not my usual supermarket. I'm in line to buy a few groceries. The lady in front of me -- mid 60's, expensive and garish silk track suit, hideous visor and sunglasses, gi-normous jewel encrusted rings on her bony fingers -- to the checkout lady:
I haven't been to my regular grocery store for about a week. United Food and Commercial Workers, who are employed at all of the major Southern California grocery store chains (Ralph's, Vons/Pavillions and Albertsons), are on strike (as they are in many cities across the country). The stores have hired non-union "scabs," but I, like so many other Angelinos, won't cross the picket line. The employees are not striking for better wages or more benefits. The final contract offered by those big store chains, rejected last weekend by the union, offered a dramatic reduction in starting wages & benefits for "new" workers (slowly increasing to the "established" workers' benefits over three years), and a slightly-less-than cost-of-living increase for current workers during that period, coupled with a 50% increase in employee-paid health care costs for families. For most workers with families, the insurance costs outweigh the meager increases, and the companies' hourly contribution toward these costs for those workers is so outpaced by the rising cost of healthcare that, after three years, they would bring home significantly less money than they do today. This could become an extreme reduction in compensation, to an employee population which primarily hovers just above the poverty line, living paycheck to paycheck.
But the grocery chains are not the cause of the problem -- their action is only a symptom of a larger illness. Yes, they are leaning heavily on their underpaid workers, which is wrong. But the grocery business margins are razor thin (2% or less by some reports), and the industry is being squeezed.
The real problem lies in the insurance and healthcare industries. Especially in the past three years, a combination of escalating economic woes, rising energy costs, major catastrophes, and rampant, almost unchecked consolidation within the two industries has caused both the cost of basic health care and the cost of basic health insurance to skyrocket. As with so many other industries -- telecommunications, the airline industry, energy production (Enron, anyone?) -- the de-regulation watch-cry of "unregulated competition breeds lower prices and higher quality for consumers" has turned out to be dramatically false. Because of these dramatic price increases, many companies find themselves forced to stop providing health insurance for their workers, and those who do continue to provide insurance often find the need to pass a greater cost onto their employees. States like California try to remedy the situation by mandating employee health coverage, but, since no one is watching the cost of such coverage, mandates like this, rather than really protecting the workers, just squeeze belabored businesses harder.
So, back to our striking grocery workers, who bear the brunt of these ill-conceived policies. With luck, they will prevail, and their new contract will, at least, reflect a continuation of the status-quo: continuation of current pay scales and insurance coverage at current costs. The grocery industry then, instead of squeezing it's employees, will hopefully turn to their representatives in congress, who are the only ones with the power to stop the ridiculous upward spiral of healthcare and insurance costs. Pressure will be applied upward, toward the federal government, looking for policy changes which provide real relief for business and workers, rather than downward, squeezing the life from hourly-workers, who are living largely hand-to-mouth.
Of course, the answer to all of this is not the one the Darwinian-capitalists in the current administration want to hear. Insurance costs are high not just because they are unregulated and corporations are greedy, but also because health care costs are so very high. Health care costs are high not just because the providers are unregulated and greedy, but also because new technology is expensive, government funding has been dramatically cut, and a flood of uninsured and under-insured "charity-cases" forces higher costs on paying customers. It is becoming rapidly and abundantly clear that health care cannot be run coldly as a business like your neighborhood hardware store -- healthcare is not hardware and a purely capitalistic mentality toward healthcare only disenfranchises those people who need it most. As demand increases costs rise, but the ability to pay, in this crappy "jobless recovery" economy, decreases, and revenue drops, creating the need to raise costs ever higher, which increases the cost of insurance, which decreases employers' abilities to help pay for it, which decreases workers' coverage and ability to seek care, or pay for it when they do receive it. The cycle is vicious, and unending. A massive economic recovery and extended periods of economic boom, as in the mid-late 90s, mask the problem, since workers and employers, enjoying prosperity, can better afford to pay, but periods like the mid-late 90s do not last and, when those periods of wealth go away, the problem is again exposed. The real (but painful to many) answer is universal healthcare -- a healthcare system where society -- the government and, ultimately, the taxpayer -- provides basic, price-regulated health care for everyone who needs it. It's a jagged pill to swallow for many -- it would require a massive effort on the part of all industries involved, and possible (but not certain) tax increases for some. And it is unlikely, in a time when our administration is more interested in making war than in providing basic necessities for its citizens. But, if we can find a way to gather for a universal healthcare plan even a fraction of the 150+ billion dollars we're looking to spend in the first year or so of war, occupation and rebuilding in Iraq, and focus the national attention on the long-term benefits of such a plan, I believe a more enlightened administration can succeed. Howard Dean's proposals, as an example, would provide the opportunity for nearly every American to be protected by by a regulated-cost plan very similar to that which members of congress enjoy. The estimated cost of such a plan: $88 billion -- about the same amount which President Bush just requested to preserve the ongoing failure in Iraq.
I haven't all the answers, obviously. But I'm clear enough to recognize the real problem, and, if we can all stop pointing our fingers at overburdened worker, at the unions, and at corporations, many of which are struggling just as hard as you or me, that's a good start. The current healthcare fiasco is not the root of all our economic woes, obviously, but serious, effective healthcare reform could set in motion a series of dramatic, long-term economic benefits.
And, of course, give me the freedom to return to my local neighborhood grocery store once again.