CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers agreed to Verizon's request for "greater ability to negotiate directly with health-care vendors, which combined with increased employee co-payments and other changes, should save the company about $500 million," according to a company release in September.
During bargaining sessions two weeks ago, Kroger proposed switching West Virginia workers to Blue Cross Blue Shield. The change would save millions, thanks largely to discounts the old provider didn't have for workers at Charleston Area Medical Center.
But it wasn't enough to ensure that workers keep their current benefits with Kroger's proposed 8 percent increase, Graham said. Graham and other union leaders base that statement on a report by Milliman USA, an actuarial firm that has worked for Kroger's third-party-administered employee health-care fund for more than a decade.
Milliman's projections are based on a 12 percent rate of increase it expects in health-care costs over the next four years. Another actuary, George Morrison of Towers Perrin in Cincinnati, said with the switch to Blue Cross, the company's proposal would ensure employees maintain current benefits using what he calls a more accurate 10 percent rate of increase.
Morrison testified Thursday before a three-judge panel from the state Bureau of Employment Programs about providing unemployment benefits to striking workers. The employees, Kroger says, are ineligible because they voluntarily left their jobs. Union officials say employees were forced to strike because the company refused to budge on health care.
Stephen Wood, Kroger's chief negotiator, testified the company was considering cost-cutting techniques besides the switch to Blue Cross. One was an audit of employees' dependents covered by the company's health plan.
Nationally, companies are requiring employees to pay more to keep their families covered. Verizon workers who agreed to a contract two months ago must now pay a $40 monthly fee for employees whose working spouses decline comparable health-care coverage at their own company.
The percentage of fully subsidized family medical premiums dropped to 15 percent in 2003, down from 27 percent two years ago, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study.
Under the previous contract, full-time Kroger employees and their families were covered without upfront co-payments. Workers with less than a year weren't covered. Part-time workers got benefits, but their families weren't covered until the employee had six years with the company. At that point, they would pay $45 a month for dependent coverage. Retirees paid $150 monthly co-payments.
All those groups would see their benefits cut under the company's proposal, Graham and other UFCW officials have said.
Labor leaders, such as Graham and Harris, say similar labor battles will keep surfacing, though they add that they think companies like Kroger and Verizon are profitable enough to pay the full cost of employee health care.
Although Kroger's Williams said the West Virginia area was losing ground to Wal-Mart, Cincinnati-based Kroger reported a net income of $1.2 billion last year, a 15.5 percent increase from 2001.
"In labor negotiations now, the first day you talk about health-care coverage, and the last day you talk about health-care coverage," said Jim Bowen, president of the West Virginia Labor Federation. "It's the No. 1 issue and the last issue. The costs are spiraling, and health insurance considerations come ahead of everything else."
Staff writer Kate Long contributed to this story. To contact staff writer Paul Wilson, use e-mail or call 348-5179.