Calif. grocery workers OK deal; strike averted

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After eight months of contract-wrangling and negotiations that dragged past a strike deadline, supermarket workers in Southern California will stay on the job and shoppers won’t have to rely on Whole Foods or their corner liquor store for groceries.

Members of the region’s United Food and Commercial Workers voted to ratify a new contract with three major grocery chains, union local spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said, averting a strike of more than 60,000 workers that could have crippled the industry and left shoppers scrambling.

United Food and Commercial Workers local spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said Saturday that after two days of voting, members agreed to a deal struck Monday with Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons. Exact vote totals were not released.

“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 Anreder said after the vote.

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.

“This package protects our members’ access to affordable comprehensive health care for themselves and their families,” the union said in a statement. “That was our top priority throughout the negotiating process.”

The supermarkets, meanwhile, 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.

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.

The deal ended months of sometimes testy discussions between union officials and representatives of The Vons Cos.; Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.; and Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu Inc.

The three-year contract affects about 62,000 workers from central California to the borders of Mexico and Arizona.

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.

Union leaders and the markets announced in July that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers’ contributions to pension benefits, but remained far apart on payments to the union health care trust fund.

Union members voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize their leaders to call a strike. Those leaders said they were responding to what they characterized as the chains’ delaying tactics when they issued the required 72-hour notice Thursday evening to cancel the contract extension under which they had been working since March.

But after the Sunday evening deadline passed with neither a strike nor a deal, store employees returned to work. Union officials announced Monday that the tentative deal had been reached.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Jacob Adelman contributed to this story.

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