Business & Economy

Calif. grocery workers OK new deal with Ralph, Vons, Albertsons; strike averted

Downtown Ralphs.
Downtown Ralphs.
Doualy Xaykaothao

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers will be going to work today in anticipation of paying about $7 per week for individual health insurance under a new three-year contract ratified Saturday. It took eight months of contract-wrangling and negotiations that dragged past a strike deadline, but shoppers won't have to rely on Whole Foods or their corner liquor store for groceries.

The contract, ratified by employees of Ralphs, Vons/Pavilions and Albertsons, will cover some 62,000 grocery store employees from central California to the borders of Mexico and Arizona, averting a strike that could have crippled the industry and left shoppers scrambling.

Workers will pay about $15 per week for family health insurance, according to published reports, but details of the agreement were not made public. Details of the agreement were made available to members for the first time as they filed into their union locals' headquarters or other voting locations to cast their ballots on Friday and Saturday.

"There was a sense of relief when people had an opportunity to really look over the new contract and see what was in it," Ralphs clerk and union member Mario Frias said.

"This deal protects our members' health care and pension, and provides modest increases in wages," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles.

"This is a win for grocery workers, our communities, and our local economy," he said.

"We're all very grateful to our customers for their support over this eight-month process, and are very grateful that we can continue to serve them," a tired-but-relieved UFSCW local spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said after the vote.

The supermarkets said after agreeing to the deal that it would allow them to remain competitive. Messages left for grocery representatives after the vote were not immediately returned.

The two sides made a tentative deal as the union was about to strike last weekend. Union officials had urged their rank-and-file to ratify the contract, which they said addressed concerns about funding for the employees' health plan, the main sticking point during months of negotiations.

The contract will also covers employees at Stater Bros. Markets and Kroger's Food 4 Less, which are negotiating separate deals with the UFCW's locals.

Exact vote totals were not released.

Ralphs had indicated it would initially close all 250 of its stores if there had been a strike; Albertsons had said it could shutter up to 100 locations, while Vons had said its stores would remain open.

The prospect of shuttered stores and tense picket lines brought fears of a repeat of the four-month strike in 2004 that cost the industry $2 billion and created a mess for shoppers. This time around, with unemployment at 12.1 percent in California, workers evidently feared that they would find little public sympathy if they voluntarily walked off the job.

The market chains, meanwhile, were likely reluctant to invite shutdowns and picket lines that might alienate shoppers already spending less due to the economic downturn.