After three months of heated negotiations, employees at Cody’s Books will be voting to ratify or reject a new union contract that cuts health care costs in half for employees who have families.
The Service Employees International Union Local 790, and Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s, had been deadlocked until a compromise was reached in late November, according to John Supanich, the store’s magazine buyer and a member of the negotiating committee.
“It was really contentious,” Supanich said. “Usually we wrap [contract negotiations] up in a month.”
According to Supanich, employees were primarily concerned with re-writing the old contract’s health care policy. That contract, which only lasted a year, doubled health care costs for employees with dependents and reduced it for single employees, he said.
In the new contract, Supanich said, all full-time employees will pay 10 percent of the premium plus a co-pay for each doctor visit. Part-time employees will pay slightly more. Supanich, for example, will pay $55 a month for himself and his wife instead of the $120 he now pays under the previous contract. Any increases in the premium would be absorbed by the employer. As a result, premiums would stay the same for employees throughout the two-and-a half-year contract.
While employees understand health care costs are rising, Supanich said, they are unable to pay double the cost for health insurance with their current wages. He said workers start at around $8.30 an hour and can earn up to about $16 an hour. Eleven of the 60 people in the union support families on their wages.
“We wanted it to be equitable, so the families were not paying more,” said Supanich.
Ross said his concern is that the store’s health care costs have gone up “exponentially,” while business has either dropped or stagnated. Part of the problem he said, is a bad economy.
Even as one of the largest independent bookstores, with 150,000 titles in their Telegraph Avenue location, the store has struggled to compete against large chains and the Internet.
“It’s all about health care,” Ross said. “Workers do not want to lose their benefits and we need to do something we can afford.”
Employees at the store have been unionized since 1992. Founded in 1956 by the Cody family, the Telegraph store was bought by Ross in 1977. A second branch on Fourth Street was opened in 1997.
According to Ken Jacobs, who works for the UC Labor Center, the fight at Cody’s is part of a national trend.
“[Health care] has been the central issue in almost every labor dispute in the county over the last several years,” he said.
As health care costs rise, he said, employers have tried to shift the cost to employees. Employees have fought back, resulting in large strikes like the ones that consumed Southern California grocery markets and San Francisco hotels.
When employers successfully shift the cost, the tax payers are forced to carry the burden as employees turn to public services like Medical for basic care, he said.
Jacobs said the November defeat of Proposition 72, which would have required businesses with more than 100 employees to provide health care, was a lost chance for employers and unions to encourage reform.
“Rather than getting into these knock-down fights, we need to see motion forward in employers working with the union in reforming costs,” he said.
At Cody’s, Supanich said, he expects employees to ratify the contract and gave Ross credit for agreeing to an equitable solution.
“In the end, we found some creative ways to solve things,” he said. “My sense is that he understood that the more he has a well-compensated and happy staff, the better it will be for him.”