Two major Southern California supermarket operators reached a tentative deal on a new labor contract that could avert a strike at more than 500 grocery stores by the chains’ 47,000 workers.
Albertsons, which owns Vons and Pavilions, and the Ralphs division of Kroger Co. said they reached the agreement early Sunday with the seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union that represent the workers.
The union confirmed the proposed deal and said its members would start voting Monday whether to ratify the agreement, with the results expected to be announced Thursday. Union leadership is recommending ratification.
Terms of the tentative contract were withheld until the workers could review them and vote.
The employees, who work at 532 stores stretching from Central California to the Mexican border, already had authorized union leaders to call a strike if a new contract couldn’t be reached. Ralphs, meanwhile, confirmed last week that it had already started recruiting replacement workers in preparation for a possible work stoppage.
“We are proud to announce that a tentative agreement has been reached with both companies,” said a statement posted Sunday morning by UFCW Local 135, which covers San Diego County. “We know the road to get here has been a long one for you and your co-workers. Your dedication to standing up for good jobs –- engaging tens of thousands of customers with over 200 community rallies and store actions –- has been the driving force behind getting a deal that you can be proud to have stood up for.
“Because you are part of a union family, you have a voice, and a vote. Let’s make it count.”
Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions have a combined 342 stores and 29,000 unionized employees in the region, while Ralphs has 190 stores and 18,000 employees involved.
“We believe this agreement is a step forward towards our vision of what grocery jobs should be in the future,” said John Grant, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, the union representing grocery workers. “Consumers and community leaders stood with us to show our value and the impact we have in our stores and communities. We have many to thank for their support.”
Although contract negotiations have covered a number of issues, including healthcare and pensions, wages were a primary focus. As recently as Thursday, Ralphs spokesman John Votava said the chain had offered a total of $1.20 in hourly pay increases spread over three years. He would not comment Sunday on whether that offer had changed.
Existing hourly wages for workers — including general merchandise staff, meat clerks and department managers — can range from $12.20 to more than $21. However, in jurisdictions that have a higher minimum wage than California’s, lower paid workers are entitled to that higher wage. For instance, in the city of Los Angeles and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, where the minimum wage for large employers was $13.25 an hour as of Jan. 1 of this year, union workers, under their expired contract, were entitled to at least that hourly wage, plus a differential that rises as hourly pay increases. As of July 1, the minimum wage for large employers in Los Angeles rose to $14.25 an hour.
A strike would have seriously disrupted the $45-billion grocery business in Southern California, the nation’s largest, with the Albertsons and Ralphs stores together representing nearly 40% of the market.
Such a strike occurred 16 years ago in Southern California, a bitter dispute that dragged on for 4 ½ months, caused financial hardship for the employees and cost the chains a combined $1.5 billion in lost sales. It was the largest and longest grocery walkout in U.S. history.
Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Peltz is a Times staff writer.