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Grocery workers ratify contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons

September 24, 2011 | 11:26 pm

Strike 

Members of Southern California’s grocery union voted to ratify a new contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons on Saturday night, bringing an end to labor negotiations that dragged on for more than eight months and brought tens of thousands of workers to the verge of a strike.

The new contract, said union leaders, will help ensure workers at Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons and Pavilions will stay on the job, and prevent a potentially devastating blow to the state’s already shaky economy.

The results came just days after officials from the region’s United Food and Commercial Workers union struck a tentative deal with the three big supermarket chains. Workers cast their ballots on Friday and Saturday, said officials.

“This deal protects our members’ health care and pension, and provides modest increases in wages,” Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said in a statement Saturday night.

"This is a win for grocery workers, our communities, and our local economy. Without the unity and determination of our members, this deal would not have been possible. And without the unwavering support of consumers and the community, it would have been a much tougher fight. To those supporters, thank you," Icaza said.

Kendra Doyel, a spokeswoman for Ralphs, said, "Ralphs is glad the contract has been ratified and we look forward to doing what our great people do best: serving our customers."

Representatives of the union and the three grocery chains reached the tentative deal after negotiating more than 24 hours straight. The talks had grown increasingly urgent after a deadline for a possible strike passed last weekend.

A sticking point dealt with healthcare funding: how much each side would have to pay to ensure that a healthcare trust fund covering workers would be economically viable for the long term.

Under the complicated deal, according to people familiar with the negotiations, grocery workers will pay $7 a week for individual coverage and $15 a week for a family starting next April. The grocers had said these premiums were necessary to help offset rising medical costs.

The vote tallies were not immediately disclosed. But officials of two of the seven UFCW locals said both the turnout and support of the deal were high.

The contract covers an estimated 62,000 checkers, baggers, meat cutters and other grocery workers from Santa Maria to the Mexican border. They include employees of Ralphs, which is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati; Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons, which is owned by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

The contract's terms will also apply to employees at other retailers, including Stater Bros. Markets and Kroger's Food 4 Less, under separate deals negotiated with the union.

Had there been a strike, an estimated 54,000 workers might have walked out at Ralphs, Vons/Pavilions and Albertsons, according to data provided by the three companies.

But neither side felt it could afford a repeat of strike and lockout that lasted 141 days in the 2003-04. That work stoppage left many union members with staggering debts and reportedly cost the employers an estimated $2 billion. It also gave competing grocery stores an opportunity to grab market share — all at a time when the state’s economy was stronger than it currently is.

Indeed, in the years since then, the three big grocers hemorrhaged market share. As of 2004, the three chains held nearly 60% of the Southern California grocery trade, according to research firm Strategic Resource Group in New York. Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons/Pavilions now hold about 23% of the Southern California market.

Smaller competitors, meanwhile, have flourished. Farmers markets, discount shops, high-end specialty stores, small independents and big warehouse clubs have eaten into their business. Target Corp. is attacking the grocery business with a vengeance, with 140 of its Southern California stores now carrying fresh groceries.

Grocery workers give notice to end contract extension

In the event of a walkout, the chains' competition would be the big winners

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: At the ballot box. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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