Clergy are coming to the aid of striking grocery workers in Southern California, preaching that affordable health insurance is a moral issue.

Religious groups have joined 70,000 striking grocers with “walking prayer” to picket lines in the Los Angeles area. This week clergy joined striking workers for a “justice pilgrimage” to the home of Safeway boss Steve Burd, an evangelical Christian, to make their case that the strike is a religious issue.

Now in its 16th week, it is the longest supermarket strike in U.S. history.

“The supermarket workers are engaged in a righteous struggle, fighting to save health care benefits, not just for their families, but all working families,” said a statement by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a local interfaith association of 400 religious leaders advocating for the working poor. The group urged Safeway and the other markets “to deal fairly and honestly with their employees.”

The stores, Safeway-owned Von’s and Pavilion stores, Albertson’s and Kroger-owned Ralph’s, are seeking to pass on some of the costs they pay in health-care coverage to workers. They say they need to cut costs to compete with retailers like Wal-Mart.

The union says the employers’ proposal would effectively eliminate affordable health care for grocery workers in Southern California.

Seven locals voted by over 90 percent to reject offers by three of the nation’s largest supermarket chains and set up picket lines Oct. 11. Albertson’s and Kroger responded by locking their employees out. Workers have since seen their strike pay cut and health benefits run out. Talks have been deadlocked since December.

The stores say they are asking workers to make modest adjustments and pay a “small portion” of their health-care premium—just $5 to $15 a week. Others looking at the proposal, however say the impact on newer employees would range from $4,000 to $6,000 a year, out of annual wages averaging $19,000.

Supermarket workers in Southern California on average earn between $12 and $14 an hour, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, and work about 30 hours a week. While that’s enough to keep a single mom and her children out of poverty, passing on health care costs now paid by the company would drop her below the poverty line.

“People can’t stay in jobs like this,” said Chris Sanders, a Baptist labor activist in California to help garner support for workers in the religious community. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. You have to work.”

A Baptist seminary and law school graduate, Sanders has worked 15 years in religion and labor advocacy. He currently is with United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 227 in Louisville, Ky.

“We’re trying to help connect churches and congregations with workers and the struggle itself,” Sanders said in a phone interview this week.

The companies say they need to cut costs to stay competitive in a changing market. Wal-Mart, a top competitor, pays some of its employees half of the top wages they pay and offer fewer benefits, according to the Pasadena Star-News.

But the union says the stores’ profits have increased 91 percent since 1998. “It’s not that these chains aren’t profitable,” Sanders said.

Sanders added that Wal-Mart averages 60-percent turnover in workers each year. “If Kroger, Safeway and Albertson’s are able to do the same thing in their unionized chains, they’ll turn their part of the retail industry into low-wage, high-turnover, which will make some people incredibly wealthy.”

“Matthew 25 says Jesus said that ‘I was sick and you cared for me and when you’ve done it unto the least of these my brethren you’ve done it unto me.’ Safeway is saying that ‘Our top people deserve to have a good living and health care coverage, but we’re willing to end health care coverage for the working people who work for us.’ That’s not the Golden Rule.”

“If the company is willing to end health care coverage for workers, it’s as if they were doing it to Jesus,” Sanders said.

Some observers say if the grocery workers lose their health insurance coverage today, it could bode ill for other Americans as other large companies follow suit.

“I think corporate America is watching this pretty closely,” Sanders said. “If Safeway can beat us, they’re going to say this is the wave of the future.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

For more information, check out the United Food and Commercial Workers Web site or e-mail Chris Sanders.

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