FOOD 4 LESS WORKERS ACCEPT TWO-TIER WAGES

LOS ANGELES -- Workers at 101 Food 4 Less stores across Southern California ratified new labor contracts last week that include a second tier for wages and a slower progression to the top pay scale.However, the new contract gives second-tier employees at Food 4 Less the same medical benefits as second-tier employees at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons -- a gain for the union, a union negotiator for the

LOS ANGELES -- Workers at 101 Food 4 Less stores across Southern California ratified new labor contracts last week that include a second tier for wages and a slower progression to the top pay scale.

However, the new contract gives second-tier employees at Food 4 Less the same medical benefits as second-tier employees at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons -- a gain for the union, a union negotiator for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union told SN.

Both Food 4 Less and Ralphs are owned by Kroger, Cincinnati.

Historically, Food 4 Less employees in Southern California have been paid at a lower wage scale with lower benefits than employees covered by the master food agreement because it operates as a price-impact chain whose stores are in lower-income areas with more non-union competition.

"The employer had proposed that new hires be given lower health care benefits than the chains were getting, but we said no way," the negotiator said. "We established the benefits in the master agreement as a floor, and we were not going to let them give our members any less."

The Food 4 Less agreement, which covers 5,700 employees, expired Feb. 28 but was extended until last week, when the new agreement was ratified.

The new contract will expire in June 2007, three months after the master agreement expires in March 2007 -- the same time gap that has traditionally existed between the expiration of the master agreement and the Food 4 Less agreement.

Under the new contract, Food 4 Less employees hired before ratification will get a 30-cent wage increase in June 2005 and two lump-sum bonus payments of 30 cents -- one a month after ratification and the second in June 2006, the negotiator said. When the contract expires, employees earning a top rate of $16.51 an hour under the previous agreement will be earning $16.81 an hour, she said.

The new second-tier employees -- those hired after ratification -- will start at $8.50 an hour and move up incrementally for every 1,000 hours worked to a top hourly rate of $14.45 -- a slower progression for less money than those hired under the previous agreement, who started at $7.48 an hour, went up 50 cents after 288 hours worked and then received wage increases for every 690 hours worked to $16.51.

Asked why the union had agreed to accept a second tier when that was one of the issues that resulted in a 141-day strike-lockout before the master agreement was ratified, the negotiator told SN, "We had already accepted the second tier at the major chains, and Food 4 Less made the point that it had to compete with some of those stores.

"So we gave them the second tier, though our hope is to remove that tier in the master agreement and, subsequently, in the Food 4 Less contract during the next round of negotiations, or if we're unsuccessful, the round after that."

According to the negotiator, other contract terms included the following:

The minimum weekly guarantee of 20 hours at Food 4 Less was moved up to 24 hours.

A first-tier Food 4 Less employee promoted after the new contract was ratified will be able to progress under the first-tier wage scale, whereas first-tier employees covered by the master food agreement and promoted after its ratification are receiving raises under the second-tier progression.