Grocery contract yields small pay raises, as workers stave off higher retirement age

Clerks, meat cutters and stockers who staff some of Southern California’s largest grocery chains will vote Monday and Tuesday on a contract that includes modest pay increases and cements current health and pension benefits. 

“We forced them to compromise more than they wanted to,” said Rick Icaza, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. UFCW represents 47,000 workers in contract talks with Albertsons and Ralphs.

California’s march towards a $15 minimum wage in 2022 loomed large over the negotiations, as union officials worried that the stores would cut benefits to make up for the money they’d have to pour into pay.

But the stores are offering to keep the health package intact, so workers only have to pay $15 per week for full family coverage. Employers would pay more into their employees’ medical and pension plans through 2018.

Ralphs and Albertsons have also proposed raising pay for entry-level cashiers, who used to earn 20 cents more than the minimum wage, to 40 cents above the highest applicable wage floor. That means that new workers at Los Angeles stores will earn 40 cents more than the local minimum wage of $10.50, above the state minimum of $10.

The highest-paid butchers, cashiers and general merchandise clerks will get a 30-cent-per-hour raise this year, applied retroactively to when the last contract expired in March. They’ll earn another 30-cent raise in 2017, plus a 25-cent raise in 2018, if the current proposal is approved.

Everyone else will be entitled to a 10-cent raise roughly every four to five months. The union was unable to win bigger pay bumps for those less-experienced workers, said Kathy Finn, the director of collective bargaining at UFCW Local 770.

The union said it also got the stores to back down on their attempt to raise the retirement age to 65, from 60, and on proposed cuts to holiday pay.

“We are very excited. We will be glad to get that vote done and move on,” said Kendra Doyel, a spokeswoman for Ralphs. “No one wins in a strike, not our associates, not our company and not our customers.”

“We will continue to provide retail employees with pay that significantly exceeds the minimum wage, along with comprehensive health, welfare and pension benefits,” Albertsons spokesman Carlos Illingworth said in an emailed statement.

The pact is a product of five months of talks between the companies and union officials, which culminated in three intense days of final discussions in the Manhattan Beach Marriott last week.

A massive strike roiled the industry for months in 2003 and 2004, disrupting shoppers and shifting business to new entrants and ethnic grocery stores. With that precedent in mind, the federal government sent a senior mediator, Scot Beckenbaugh, to each of the four contract negotiations held since 2007, union officials said.

On Wednesday, negotiators remained at the table until 3:30 a.m., and by midday Thursday they had the skeleton of a workable contract, said officials from the union and Ralphs.

“It was basically 96 hours of nonstop negotiating; I barely ever went outside,” said the UFCW’s Finn.

“It’s not terrific in terms of wages, but it’s acceptable,” Finn said of the proposed contract. “It’s going to get ratified. The members are going to be happy.”

Natalie.Kitroeff@latimes.com

Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter

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