Nearly 47,000 United Food and Commercial Workers grocery store workers in Southern California agreed to the new three-year contract on Thursday, finally ending all talks of a possible strike after months of worry.
Earlier this week, the workers had voted on approving the new deal. Under the terms of the deal between union leaders and grocery store representatives agreed to last week, most grocery store workers will receive pay raises of $4.25 per hour in the next three years, with more senior workers seeing even higher raises during that time. Workers will also see stronger health benefits, more guaranteed hours for part-time workers, and a secured pension. Increased store health and safety protocols were also added in due to lingering concerns stemming from COVID-19 protocols, with employees now getting a say on such matters.
A possible strike had been a threat since late January for several chains including Kroger-owned Ralphs and Albertsons, which also owns Vons and Pavilions. With a three-year contract ending March 6th, the UFCW asked for several things related to the rising cost of living in Southern California and post-COVID health concerns. Workers demanded more health and safety commitments in stores, along with raises as high as $5 per hour for longtime workers. The union also demanded an increased number of minimum hours for part-time employees.
While the grocery stores did agree to some terms, such as keeping healthcare, they did not see eye to eye on several points. Most notably, the stores only wanted to go as high as 60 cent raises, which had then gone as high as $1.80 during negotiations in March. With neither side moving in late March, the UFCW took a vote to strike if needed, to help give the union a little more leverage in negotiations and to possible prepare for the worst possible outcome. On March 28th, the votes were tallied, with workers in favor of striking if needed. In response, the grocery stores began putting out advertisements for replacement workers and began working with truck drivers to bypass likely sympathy action by the Teamsters union.
Negotiations between the UFCW and the grocery stores proceeded on a roller coaster ride in the last week as a strike grew more and more imminent. Both sides shot statements at each other over the weekend as negotiations started to stall again, with the UFCW saying that the stores were not moving far from their offers while the stores shot back that not paying union dues would bring wages for workers up significantly.
However, with a strike almost unavoidable, both sides met during the first weekend in April at an LA hotel and hammered out an agreement during a 30-hour session, coming to a final agreement last Monday. While both sides declared victory, the deal was not a sure thing until the vote earlier this week. Now, with the vote behind them, many workers involved in the negotiations finally spoke out on Thursday and Friday about the new changes.
A new three year deal voted on by SoCal UFCW workers
“We made history!” said Ralphs clerk and UFCW bargaining team member Erika Bentzen on Thursday in a statement. “This was the first time members were part of the negotiations and I believe it made a difference having us there. This is the best contract in the country.”
The UFCW also noted, “After more than two years of risking their lives to serve California’s communities as essential workers, reaching a fair contract with better wage increases, health care improvements, and protected pensions for these hard-working members could not have come at a more important time.”
Many labor experts said that the new deal was far in the workers favor, with virtually all demands met.
“You would expect some sort of compromise, but it looks like the UFCW got what they wanted,” said Andrea Sorrento, a labor consultant who has been a part of several union negotiations since the late 1990’s, to the Globe on Friday. “The stores started at a 60 cents per hour raise, went up to $1.80, and finally stopped at $4.25. The union wanted around $5, which is pretty close, especially for longer time workers who will be making more than the standard raise in the contract. The union didn’t get the minimum hours for part-time workers like they wanted but they still got more hours in total. And then everything else was met.”
“COVID and what has gone on in grocery stores in the last 25 months had to have been a huge part in the agreement because of the focus around health and safety. Also, grocery stores probably lost some leverage once it was pointed out that they themselves called these people essential workers. If you are someone looking for a big raise, that’s what you bring up when the time comes.”
“What we are likely going to see is the number of part-time workers being slowly dropped, with long-time workers who retire or other full-time employees then being replaced with new part-time workers clocking in at just under 30 hours a week to avoid healthcare benefits being paid out. This seems like a major victory for workers, but the stores will find a way to even it out behind the scenes. It is a victory for the workers, but if they’re smart, they’ll keep tabs on things like that.”
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