California Grocery Workers Win Settlement, Wait for Details

Rowdy delegations of union and community members marched into hundreds of stores in Southern California to win a contract for grocery workers. They've wrested a tentative agreement but the UFCW has not released details. Photo: Photo: UFCW Local 770.

Southern California grocery workers have wrested a tentative agreement from their three profitable employers, Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons.

The 62,000 Food and Commercial (UFCW) members faced such severe cuts to their health fund that workers might have faced annual out-of-pocket expenses of $7,000 even while paying weekly premiums. Average grocery worker pay is $25,000 a year.

The three chains brought in $3 billion in profits in 2010.

The union said the settlement “protects your health care” but did not release details. The tentative agreement will be presented to members at meetings Friday and Saturday, where the seven locals covered by the deal will urge ratification.

Faced with severe threats to their health care, members took two overwhelming strike votes. The last one, in mid-September, saw 90 percent vote to strike.

Throughout the summer, rowdy delegations of union and community members marched into hundreds of stores from northern Los Angeles county to the Mexican border, demanding to speak to managers and pledging not to cross picket lines. Unions and community groups adopted more than 100 stores in L.A. County alone, said Glen Arnodo of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, reaching out to shoppers to ask them to respect picket lines and pledging financial support for picketers in case of a strike.

On September 15, the union gave the employers a 72-hour strike notice, following an earlier agreement. After marathon bargaining sessions, the union said the companies moved on Monday.

The unions went to considerable lengths not to strike. “We’re not looking to strike,” said Mickey Kasparian, president of Food and Commercial Workers Local 235 in San Diego. “We just didn’t want to go backwards.”



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Memories of a disastrous five-month strike in 2003-2004 are still fresh. Then, the unions were unable to stop two-tier wages, and returned largely defeated after the hardships of the walkout.

In a twist, the supermarkets faced such awful retention problems they abandoned the two-tier scheme in the 2007 contract. But new workers still don’t see health coverage for months after hiring in, and because many workers are less than full time it can take up to seven years to reach journeyman pay.

This time, the unions faced enormous pressure as they watched their health fund dwindle by $8 million a month. The losses will stop only when a new contract increases the employer contribution. The employers, meanwhile, took the opportunity to stall.

As recently as September 9, the union denounced a management proposal which the union said would “bankrupt the health fund.”

Scott Schroeder, a member of UFCW Local 8, questioned why the union didn’t maximize leverage by waiting to settle until Northern California contracts expired in October. Now, he said, Northern California members are essentially locked into whatever terms emerge from Southern California.

John Briley, the retired president of a Salinas local now merged into UFCW Local 5, noted that the fate of retiree health care has been absent in public discussions of Southern California’s deal.

“The devil’s in the details,” Schroeder said.

Mischa Gaus contributed to this article.