Wearing black arm bands symbolizing the death of their health and welfare fund, representatives of 4,000 retired workers from supermarkets in the Baltimore-Washington area picketed in front of the employment offices at Super Fresh and Giant Food yesterday.
The retired workers were calling attention to a 114 percent increase in co-payments for their health insurance, from $80 a month in December to $171.95 this month. The additional cost, they say, is too much for retired people on fixed incomes.
"That's a lot of hamburger," said one retired worker, who asked to be identified only as Jim. "The cost of living has gone up so much, you really depend on that retirement pension. And, with this increase, you just can't make it."
The informational picket line was organized by Local 27 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. About 150 retired workers and employees walked the line to protest what they say is unwillingness on the part of Super Fresh, Giant and Safeway to reopen the current contract and negotiate a lower co-payment.
In a three-year contract ratified in 1989, the union agreed that retirees would pay a greater share of their health-care costs than before. First-year premiums for the retirees were estimated at $80 a month for 1990. The company agreed to pay up to $152.23 a month in 1990, and a maximum of $162.23 a month in 1991.
After the contract was signed, the first year's premiums were calculated at $97 a month, $17 more than expected. The union asked to pay the $17 out of reserves in the jointly operated health fund. The companies went along but said the union members had to pay off the difference through premiums in 1991.
But the health fund experienced a sharp rise in usage by retirees last year. That, combined with the previous year's deficit, resulted in expenses of $11.9 million for 1990, said Harry Burton, an attorney with the Washington law firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, who represents the companies on the fund.
The employer contributions covered $6.8 million and the employee premiums another $2.8 million, leaving a shortfall of $2.9 million. Under the terms of the contract, Burton said, the burden of replenishing the fund now falls on the retirees.
Tom Russow, president of Local 27, said that is unacceptable.
"It's going to be a strike issue, as far as we're concerned," Russow said. The companies are "basically just wiping out [the retirees'] pension checks."
A strike could take place only after the expiration of the current contract in 1992.
Whether the issue can be resolved before then is a matter of dispute.
In a statement from Russow, retirees were told that the fund's employer trustees "refuse to negotiate until the present agreement expires."
"The employers don't have any objection to sitting down and talking," Burton said. "The plan could be altered . . . the employers just have not been receptive to leaving everything as is and just picking up the liability."
For now, retirees have no choice but to see $171.95 a month deducted from their pensions to pay for health insurance.
"We don't think it's fair," said James L. Hawkins Sr., 70, who worked for 35 years as a stock clerk for Super Fresh, formerly A&P.; "We never expected this."