Grocery workers, hungry to return to their jobs, overwhelmingly approved a new three-year contract this weekend, ending a nearly five-month strike and lockout that cost the supermarket chains almost $1.5 billion in lost sales and disrupted the shopping patterns of millions of consumers throughout Southern California.
Officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers union declared the strike a victory in announcing Sunday evening that the pact was approved by 86% of the voting membership. But support for the contract from many union members was grudging at best.
"It was take it, or there's the door," said Ralphs cashier Carlos Beltran, 25, who voted "yes" at Local 770's polling place in Hollywood. "They are all thieves, the companies and the unions. They're just sticking it to us."
Still, not everyone was unhappy. "I'm glad we're going back to work, and I supported the strike," union member Andrea Gonzales said after hearing the results Sunday night.
"But I've always told people that this is the best business with the best pay and benefits, and no matter what this contract says they're not going to find anything better," said Gonzales, a Ralphs service manager in Riverside and 28-year veteran of the industry.
The agreement covers 70,000 workers from San Diego to Santa Barbara. People who have been on strike or locked out of Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons and Pavilions stores since Oct. 11 will be back at their old jobs by Friday, a union spokeswoman said.
The contract will put veteran workers and new hires in separate pay and benefits tiers for the first time. The newly hired will receive substantially less in wages and benefits, slashing stores' labor costs.
The two-tier plan was a key goal of the three supermarket companies: Albertsons Inc.; Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs; and Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions. Some union members said they were unhappy about the two-tier plan but cast ballots for it anyway.
"What these companies got is cheap labor so they can perform in the stock market," said Danny Mauro, 52, a clerk at Ralphs.
Others said they had no quarrel with the contract. "I can't wait to quit my other job and go back to work," said Angelina Salamanca, 29, a Ralphs clerk temporarily employed in a coffee shop.
The union claimed a victory in healthcare coverage: Under the contract, veterans won't have to pay for their coverage in the first two years, and not in the third year if contributions from the companies are enough to cover costs. If not, the estimated cost would be up to $5 a week for individual coverage and up to $15 a week for family coverage.
But workers now will have co-payments for medical services that were paid in full by their insurance under the contract that expired Oct. 6.
Instead of raises, veterans will get lump sum payments this year equal to 30 cents an hour for every hour they worked in the 12 months before the old contract expired. That would be about $500 per employee based on an average 32-hour workweek. A second bonus would be paid after the end of the second year of the contract, equal to 30 cents an hour for every hour worked from March 6, 2005, through Oct. 6, 2006, according to a contract summary obtained by The Times.
"Today is just very special for me," said a grinning Caesar Uuh after he voted at the Anaheim Convention Center, Local 324's polling place. The 41-year-old Albertsons clerk, who has two children in college, said he didn't bother to read the union-supplied summary of the contract. After months as a temporary freight handler at Los Angeles International Airport, he said, "I just want to get back to work."
Times staff writers Debora Vrana and Ronald D. White contributed to this report.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
On February 12, 2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had stated repeatedly that 70,000 workers were involved in the supermarket labor dispute in Central and Southern California, said that the number of people on strike or locked out was actually 59,000. A union spokeswoman, Barbara Maynard, said that 70,000 UFCW members were, in fact, covered by the labor contract with supermarkets that expired last year. But 11,000 of them worked for Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., Arden Group Inc.'s Gelson's and other regional grocery companies and were still on the job. (See: "UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2004, Business C-11)
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