Details of tentative grocery contract unclear

A labor march and a rally in front of the Ralphs grocery store on July 27, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
A labor march and a rally in front of the Ralphs grocery store on July 27, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
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Grocery workers and local supermarkets Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons have reached a tentative contract agreement, possibly averting a strike.

"We are pleased to have reached a tentative settlement agreement with the union that continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care," the three grocery chains said in a joint statement, "while allowing us to be competitive in the marketplace."

The agreement still needs to be approved by union members before going into effect. News of the agreement came as 62,000 grocery workers were poised to walk off the job. Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union gave a 72-hour strike notice on Thursday, and a walk-out could have started as early as Monday.

"Knowing that we’re in a difficult economy, knowing that health care is an issue across the country, and we’re in a very competitive marketplace, they did exactly what needed to be done and that was a little give and take to reach an agreement there at the table," said Kendra Dovel, a spokeswoman for Ralphs.

Exactly who gave and who took remains to be seen. Neither side disclosed details of the contract, but representatives for both sides said they’re pleased to have reached it. The supermarkets say it helps them stay competitive — and there’s a lot to compete against. Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons are up against some retailing giants: WalMart, Target and Tesco’s Fresh & Easy. They’re also battling against a half-dozen independent grocery store chains, most of them non-union, that have swiped a big chunk of their customers. As for the grocery workers: United Food and Commercial Workers Union spokesman Mike Shimpock says the agreement proves that when a union stands firm, it wins.

"The gap was bridged by the grocery workers showing their resolve to go on strike to protect their jobs and their healthcare. I think the markets understood that this was something that was critical to us. Again, we were just asking for what is just a very small part of their total profits," he said.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Sunday urged grocery workers and supermarkets to negotiate agreement to avoid a strike. Albertsons issued a statement saying the stores remain committed to reaching a deal.

Health care was the major issue at the negotiating table. Union officials said there most recent contact offer would require workers to pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage. But union officials said the companies were not increasing their contributions to the health care fund, insisting the plan would be bankrupt in about 16 months.

In a statement, union negotiators said the tentative deal was reached "thanks to the unity of our members."

"We have attained our most important goal, which was continuing to provide comprehensive health care to the members and their families," the negotiators said. "The grocery workers of Southern California stood together, strong and united, throughout this long and difficult process. They refused to accept anything less than a contract that protects their wages, benefits and working conditions. We are proud of them."

Both sides must be happy to avert a strike, and both are happy and relieved that they have. During a 141-day lockout in 2003-04, the stores hired temporary workers, and some of the chains were fined for rehiring regular employees under aliases. The replacement workers all lost their jobs when a new contract was signed, and the lockout cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion. And the chains are now in a tighter competitive situation then they were earlier in the decade because of the advent of specialty food stores and the entry of major discounters, such as Wal-Mart and Target, into the grocery business.

Mason Elvidge started working at an Albertsons store in Palmdale after the end of the last strike because the job offered health care benefits. Now the 25-year-old works part time. Last week, Elvidge said his employer was asking him to fork over the bulk of his paycheck to pay for his benefits.

"I made $11,000 last year. How am I supposed to survive off a thousand dollars? I can barely make the truck payment as it is per month. You know, I live with my parents. The last three years, I’ve seen a lot of financial hardship because of the economy," he said.

Elvidge and more than 60,000 other union members are expected to vote on the contract later this week.

KPCC wire services contributed to this story. This story has been updated.