Unions Cite Gains in New Contract

Union leaders said the proposed four-year contract with the big three supermarket chains in Southern California includes improved terms for workers, who were scheduled to vote on the new pact yesterday. It's like night and day, an official of the United Food and Commercial Workers union told SN last week after the tentative agreement was reached. We wouldn't be recommending it if we didn't

LOS ANGELES — Union leaders said the proposed four-year contract with the “big three” supermarket chains in Southern California includes improved terms for workers, who were scheduled to vote on the new pact yesterday.

“It's like night and day,” an official of the United Food and Commercial Workers union told SN last week after the tentative agreement was reached. “We wouldn't be recommending it if we didn't think we had not recovered significantly from the last agreement, and I have no problem recommending this agreement.”

Another union official offered similar comments. “We turned around the vast majority of the damage done with the last contract,” he told SN.

While both officials declined to provide details of the terms of the proposal — under blackout rules imposed by the federal mediator who was overseeing the negotiations — they said the union had met its goals, including achieving the first wage increases since 2002; eliminating the so-called second-tier and ensuring that all employees will be eligible to achieve the top wage rate; and reducing the number of hours newer workers have to wait to qualify for health insurance.

While there were no indications of the proposed wage increases, published reports here said the new contract will enable second-tier employees hired under the previous contract to make up the hourly wage gap of $1 to $3 between them and workers hired prior to that contract, and to qualify for health benefits after six months, rather than waiting 18 months for themselves and 30 months for their children.

For the employers, getting the union to accept a four-year agreement — retroactive to March 5, when the previous contract expired — ensures labor peace for a longer period than the more traditional three-year contract, observers pointed out.

“That was a point of contention during the talks,” one union official said. “If the employers wanted a long-term agreement, they had to be prepared to pay for it, and we were not going to extend the contract beyond three years without the ability to gain what we lost last time.”

One of the union officials told SN he felt much better bringing this contract to his members than the one that was approved three years ago after a 141-day strike-lockout.

In that 2004 agreement, the employers were able to add a second tier of workers at a lower pay scale, along with no wage increases and reduced health and pension benefits.

The tentative agreement was announced Tuesday afternoon after nine days of marathon sessions between negotiators for 65,000 union members and their employers at Supervalu-owned Albertsons, Kroger-owned Ralphs and Safeway-owned Vons.

Talks began in January but proceeded slowly as each employer met separately with each of the seven union locals.

Three weeks after the contracts expired on March 5, employees at Albertsons voted to authorize their negotiators to strike, if necessary, after a 72-hour cancellation notice — a move followed by workers at Ralphs and Vons last month.

The major sticking point in the talks apparently was how to fund the health care plan. It was not clear last week how that matter was dealt with in the tentative agreement.