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A collective (bargaining) sigh of relief

The pending contract deal between grocery stores and their union takes the pressure off workers and shoppers.

July 19, 2007|Ronald D. White and Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writers

As Southern California's grocery workers' union trumpeted what it described as a victory in protracted contract talks with the region's largest supermarket chains, workers expressed relief Wednesday.

The agreement came Tuesday night after months of negotiations and repeated threats of strikes and lockouts. The 65,000 union members who work at 785 Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons stores from San Diego to Bakersfield are expected to approve the new four-year pact in voting Sunday.

Shoppers interviewed Wednesday were upbeat that they would not have to hurdle picket lines to get their groceries. Workers also were happy that they would not have to strike. But for some, the stress of the grueling negotiations lingered.

"I'm not going to go through this again in another three or four years. It's too much stress," said Suzanne Demers, 44, as she headed to her job as a supervisor at a Vons in Redondo Beach.

A "second-tier" worker who earns $10.50 an hour alongside others who make as much as $17.90, Demers said she would probably support the contract her union negotiated.

But, she added, she planned to find a new line of work. "This is not the kind of company I want to work for," Demers said. "I'll go back to secretarial or administrative assistant work. I'll go back to school and maybe learn management."

Both the union and the employers were staying mum about details of the agreement until the information could be formally presented to workers before the vote.

But people familiar with the pact said it would give workers their first scheduled raises since 2002. It also would raise the top wage rate and make all employees -- including 33,000 second-tier workers who like Demers received lower wages and benefits -- eligible to reach it.

The contract would slash the time newer workers would have to wait to get health insurance to six months from as long as 18 months. The health-insurance waiting period for children of newer workers would shrink to six months from 30 months.

The supermarket chains said they were pleased with the agreement.

"We believe these contracts will allow us to remain competitive in the Southern California marketplace," said Adena Tessler, spokeswoman for the grocery chains.

The accord would make up some of the ground the United Food and Commercial Workers lost in a bitter, lengthy walkout and lockout 3 1/2 years ago.

In an update to its members, the union called the proposed pact "a victory for all grocery workers.... Three years ago we were starved into a contract. Today, we negotiated a fair contract on our terms because you stood up and stayed strong over these past seven months."

If approved, the contract looks to make a difference in the fortunes of Albertsons meat clerk Caine Levine, who said his life had not been easy lately.

He's moved in with his diabetic mom to help look after her health. He can't afford a car or a cellphone on his $7.55-an-hour wages as a second-tier grocery clerk. His girlfriend was just laid off from her job and his son is just about to start high school, he said.

To make ends meet, he recently took a second job as a nightclub bouncer.

But Levine, who is an avid cook at home, loves his job in the Albertsons meat department. He said he enjoys learning about all the cuts of meat and types of fish and their origins. And he likes the craft of taking a plain piece of meat and turning it into a cut that's enticing enough to be taken home for dinner.

"There's a little artistry in it," said Levine, who was thrilled about the chance to eventually earn as much as every other veteran in the meat department at the Los Feliz neighborhood Albertsons where he works.

"The fact that I was never going to be able to earn as much as them was always a real kick in the butt to me. It's kept me between a rock and a hard place, and the hard place was always my wallet," said Levine, who said he would probably vote for the contract.

Shoppers, too, were relieved at news of the agreement -- regardless of which side they supported.

To them, a new contract meant that such headaches as picket lines and disrupted shopping routines could be avoided.

Debbie Ramos, a 46-year-old West Covina resident who works as an employment specialist and job developer for Westview Services, shops at two Vons, one in Covina and the other in West Covina. She has come to appreciate their floral departments so much that she no longer bothers with outside florists for gifts and holidays.

"They have the best orchids and great little gifts, so it's a relief to know that I'll be able to go there and won't have to switch to Stater Bros. and the 99 Cents store for my shopping," Ramos said, adding that she would have honored a picket line as she did during the last supermarket contract fight.

Sherry Burdorf of Pacific Palisades, a homemaker and mother of four small children, was having her usual hectic day Wednesday.

But the 42-year-old was happy she wouldn't have to cross a picket line to get to her local Ralphs, although she said she would have if there was something her family needed inside the store.

"I'm ambivalent. I have an MBA and I used to be in management. I feel badly that I don't know whether the employers are being unfair or whether the union is asking too much," Burdorf said.

"But I'm relieved. I feel extremely guilty crossing picket lines. It's like walking past a homeless person asking for money."

--

ron.white@latimes.com

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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