WASHINGTON -- In the pending battle over health care reform, Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart Corp. will be organized labor's retail symbols of why employers should be required to help pay for universal health care.

The United Food & Commercial Workers Union is leading the charge against retailers. UFCW will use the health plans of Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., and Kmart, Troy, Mich., to dispel arguments that President Clinton's blueprint for employer-mandated health care reform would be ruinous.

"The employer mandate in health care reform is essential," said Gregory A. Denier, director of the union's public information and research department. "Everyone has to do the same thing, so no one can seek a competitive advantage through health care costs."

Denier said the union is singling out non-union retailers partly because they are high-profile, particularly Wal-Mart, which is the nation's largest retailer and second largest private employer. The retail industry, too, has the largest number of uninsured employees, he said.

Kmart officials, while advocating the need for health care reform, reject union claims about its health plan, which covers about 32 percent of its 350,000 employees. About 150,000 Kmart workers qualify for the coverage, which becomes available after 90 days of employment and applies to those who work at least 30 hours a week. Roughly 125,000 of these employees opt to be covered, with the company picking up 70 percent of the cost.

"How do we get employees to work for us?" asked Don Morford, Kmart's director of benefits. "I think employers all over have done a fine job providing benefits for their work force."

Kmart officials estimate that under the Clinton plan, its health care costs would increase to $700 million from its current $250 million, as benefit costs increase and part-time workers are covered. They contend this would result in the elimination of many part-timers. They also view their plan as being competitive with the President's plan.

Wal-Mart officials did not return calls for comment.

According to the UFCW, Internal Revenue Service records show that roughly 43 percent of Wal-Mart's 490,000 workers are insured. Eligibility in the plan begins after 90 days and for those working 20 hours a week or more. Workers pick up 36 percent of premium costs.

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