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Movement reported on grocery pact

In contrast to earlier remarks, a union leader says `significant progress' has been made on wages and pensions.

July 14, 2007|Jerry Hirsch and Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writers

Southern California's largest grocery chains and the union representing 65,000 employees edged closer to a new contract agreement in talks this week and plan to keep negotiating through the weekend.

People involved in the talks cautioned that hurdles remained but said headway had been made on wage and pension issues, as well as the number of years employees have to work to reach the top pay scale. The two sides still remain apart on how to fund improvements in health insurance coverage.

"We have made some significant progress," Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 770 in Los Angeles, said Friday. "There seems to be a will on both parts to compromise and come up with an agreement."

Icaza's optimistic comments were in sharp contrast to his recent remarks. Just a week ago, he complained that representatives of Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons were stalling in negotiations. He threatened to cancel a temporary agreement, which so far has prevented a strike, if the bargaining failed to start to move forward.

Such a work stoppage would affect 785 grocery stores from San Diego to Bakersfield.

The companies said negotiations were continuing but declined to discuss specifics.

The two sides have spent much of the year negotiating a contract that was set to expire March 5 but had been continued on a rolling basis by mutual agreement.

Both the UFCW and the big chains are hoping to avoid the type of work stoppage that disrupted grocery shopping for 141 days in 2003-04.

The standoff ended after the parties reached a contract that included numerous wage and benefit concessions by the union, including the creation of a tier of workers with lower pay and inferior benefits. Those employees now account for more than half of the grocery industry workforce.

Veteran workers' wages top out between $12.17 and $17.90 an hour. The exact pay depends on classifications such as general merchandise clerk, food clerk and meat cutter, and how often the employee works Sundays and other shifts with premium pay.

The "second-tier" employees start at $7.55 to $11.05 an hour, depending on the job classification. Their wages top out at about $1 to $3 less per hour than those of the veteran workers.

The UFCW has made it a priority in the talks to unwind much of that contract by improving healthcare benefits, shortening insurance eligibility periods and placing all workers on a pay track so they eventually will receive similar wages and benefits.

Negotiators plan to keep meeting through the weekend, as long as progress is made, said Greg Conger, president of Local 324 in Buena Park. "It is slow, but things are moving and there is a desire to see this through to a conclusion."

Outside labor observers said it was not unusual for contract talks to gain traction after the type of strike threats the UFCW issued last week.

"Contentious labor conflicts are often settled at the last minute," said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

"These negotiations have been really drawn out and that usually means that both sides want to settle," said Michael Posner, a Los Angeles attorney who represents labor.

Workers have signaled that they are ready to strike but would much prefer a settlement.

Ralphs grocery clerk Jackie Gitmead, 46, said she and the union "were as ready as we're ever going to be" to walk the picket lines.

"We have money but it wasn't for this, so we're going to have to rearrange things and call the rest of my family to see if they will help support me again," said Gitmead, who has worked for Ralphs since she was 16.

Mario Frias, a 19-year Ralphs employee, said he started putting money aside in January and had already contacted the family and friends who helped him through the last strike and lockout.

"They have indicated that the support will be there again. Having gone through this before, I would fight for a fair contract as long as I had to," said Frias, a clerk.

But not all union members shared those sentiments.

"I'm going to continue working until they don't let me in the door again. I will continue to work even if they strike. I will get a withdrawal from the union. Someone in my house has to bring in money," said Kathleen Manley, 59, a bookkeeper for a Ralphs in Newbury Park.

"I would not be happy. It's not a choice I ever wanted to have to make, nor does it make me feel good to make it," Manley said, later adding that she "would also look for another job. I would work here temporarily until I could locate something else. I wouldn't come back. I just can't deal with this stress."

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