UFCW reaches grocery agreement in Calif.

September 28, 2011

Nikolai Smith reports on a deal between the Big Three grocery chains and the UFCW in Southern California, after a summer of protests and strike preparation.

UNITED FOOD and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members from seven Southern California locals voted on September 23 and 24 to ratify a contract with the Big Three grocery chains Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons.

Employers backed way off demands that would have made health care completely unaffordable for many workers, but the deal will still require workers to pay an extra $712 per year for health care--a large amount of money for workers who are modestly paid.

The union organized a months-long solidarity campaign to build support for grocery workers and their demands. The campaign could have been the basis for a strike to stop the health care concessions altogether, but this was headed off by the agreement.

The deal comes after eight months of negotiations and a final round of talks that went on for nearly 24 hours straight--alongside strike preparations that mobilized the 62,000 grocery workers and their allies throughout the state.

Grocery workers demonstrated their commitment to fight for a good contract with two overwhelming strike votes, including 90 percent in favor in mid-September. Other unions and community members showed their solidarity with rallies and actions to build support in the event of a strike.

UFCW members rallying outside a Long Beach grocery store in August
UFCW members rallying outside a Long Beach grocery store in August

Mickey Kasparian, president of UFCW Local 135 in San Diego County, said that workers overwhelmingly supported the new contract, which ends the two-tiered health care system under which new employees pay more for their health care.

The fundamentals of workers' benefits were protected, chiefly the solvency of the health care fund. The companies initially offered $64 million to the health fund over three years, which union representatives argued would fail to cover increases in health care costs and bankrupt the plan.

By the time the agreement was announced, negotiators representing the grocery chains were offering $263 million--nearly $200 million more. "Without that money, it would've shattered our benefits plan," said Kasparian. "We protected our retirement. We gained key issues in worker conditions to protect meat cutters' and cashiers' jobs."

But the new contract requires workers to pay $7 a week for individual coverage and $15 a week for a family starting next April.

However, the maintenance of meat cutter and cashier positions is a key victory in the face of the Big Three's plan to eliminate these two jobs as distinct positions within the grocery stores, and assign them to baggers, in addition to bagging groceries.

THE DAY after the vote, more than 500 workers met at Local 135 headquarters to discuss the contract. Overall, there was a sense of relief as workers reflected on the 141-day strike of 2003-2004, in which more than 70,000 members walked out over the same issue--health care.

"The bottom line is the companies are making money, and I don't think we asked for any more than we deserved," said Jeff Stapp, an employee at Albertsons. "Considering the state of the economy and the state of business right now, [workers] came out of it pretty well. They protected what needed to be protected."

In terms of the Big Three, Stapp added, "It's more of an us-against-them thing for them. They want to go back to the caste system. They want the kings and queens and the poor peasants."

Anabel Arauz, a former Vons employee and current UFCW organizer, highlighted the grocery chains' persistent attacks on benefits despite their record profits. "People think that being a grocery worker is easy--it's not. People don't see what we go through in those stores."

Several workers said they received support from grocery customers. "A lot of the public supported us because we're the faces they see every day," said Albertsons employee Melissa Freitas. "They were supporting us because it was us, not because it was a union thing."

Freitas believed that the contract was fair, and she dismissed the idea that other grocery workers resented what the union workers won. "It shouldn't be people saying, 'I pay so you should have to pay,' it should be people saying, 'Hey, I work for a big company too, let's work together.'"

Workers maintained their willingness to strike if the contract had not been ratified. "Nobody would want to go out on strike, but you do what you have to do," said Freitas.

Compared with the 2003-2004 UFCW strike--the longest grocery worker strike in U.S. history--a walkout this time around would have put more pressure on the Big Three chains. According to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, "Retail analysts warned that a strike would have been more damaging to the companies than the last one eight years ago, in part because the chains could lose customers permanently to nonunion stores such as Fresh & Easy."

With Ralphs promising to shutter all 250 of its stores in the event of a strike and Albertsons vowing to close up to 100 locations, the chains feared the negative press that picket lines would cause.

"A lot of people were skeptical, but we had to be ready to go out," said Albertsons employee Emilia Pecerra. "At the end of my 36 years as an employee, knowing that I was going to get less, it didn't click in my head."

The agreement not only covers the 62,000 Big Three Chains workers, the largest bargaining unit in the UFCW, but also an additional 28,000 grocery workers at regional chains like Stater Brothers, Food 4 Less and Gelson's Market. A contract covering 45,000 grocery workers in Northern California is set to expire in October.

The new contract, which the UFCW leadership is calling a victory, didn't come without activism and organizing from rank-and-file grocery workers and their allies. For almost a year, union members and supporters have organized scores of rallies at stores, demonstrating their commitment to fight.

Rising tensions could be seen at the protests in the lead-up to the negotiations. A September 16 rally turned out more than 300 people at a San Diego Ralphs store, where there were three incidents of violence against picketers. But solidarity was building, with members of six other unions taking part in protests.

Many members praised union negotiators for putting pressure on the Big Three chains, thus forcing them to come up with an additional $72 million for health care in the last four hours of negotiations. But it had yet to be seen what could have been won had the union carried through on a strike that its members had been preparing for.

The money is there, no matter how much the Big Three plead poverty. If workers are going to be able to celebrate contracts that win back fully funded health care and pension benefits, they will need to increase the pressure on employers--and demand the fair share that we deserve.

Bo Elder, Andrew Seymour and Avery Wear contributed to this article.

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