Grocery workers relieved, if not happy, at strike's end
New York Times
February 28, 2004
Grocery Workers Relieved, if Not Happy, at Strike's End
By CHARLIE LeDUFF and STEVEN GREENHOUSE
OS ANGELES, Feb. 27 — With a tentative deal reached to end a 138-day dispute involving 59,000 supermarket workers, many union members complained Friday that the settlement gave no raises and meant a lower wage tier and skimpier health plan for new hires.
Grocery workers said they were delighted about returning to work even as they grudgingly acknowledged that the three supermarket companies involved in the industry's longest and largest dispute had emerged largely victorious. Under the three-year deal reached Thursday, the companies achieved much of their goal of cutting costs at their 852 Southern California supermarkets so they could compete better against nonunion Wal-Mart.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union settled for considerably less than it had hoped for because of financial hardship to the striking and locked-out workers. The grocery companies also were hurt, losing more than $2 billion in sales as many shoppers refused to cross picket lines.
"Both sides lost in important ways, but the union did lose more," said Ruth Milkman, chairwoman of the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment in Los Angeles.
Organized labor had sought to transform this dispute into a crusade to protect health plans. But many Wall Street analysts had urged the three companies — Albertsons, Kroger, which owns the Ralphs chain, and Safeway, which owns the Vons and Pavilions chains — to hang tough to reduce their costs.
Under the two-tier plan, wages for new workers will range from 90 cents to $2.80 less per hour than for current workers, who earn an average of about $25,000. In addition, new hires will have a less generous pension plan than current workers and will have to pay $450 a year on average in health premiums, while current workers pay nothing.
All this means that wages and benefits for new hires will average at least $4 an hour less — $8,000 per year less for full-time workers — than for current employees.
"You're not going to be able to make a career out of it anymore," said Kerry Renaud, 50, a produce worker earning the $17.90 an hour at a Vons supermarket in Hollywood. "We get squeezed, the big shots make more money and Wall Street likes it."
But union officials said they had achieved their main goal, which was to prevent management from creating a far worse health plan for current workers and new hires. Union leaders said they had persuaded the companies to contribute more toward health coverage than management had originally planned.
"It's a great deal because we were able to preserve affordable health care," said Connie Leyva, president of one of the seven union locals involved in the dispute. "That is huge. These are still good jobs."
With Wal-Mart planning to open 40 combined supermarkets and discount stores in Southern California over the next five years, the three chains said they badly needed to cut labor costs. Saying that they wanted to minimize damage to current workers, supermarket executives pushed for a lower tier of wages and benefits for future employees.
In a statement, the companies said, "The tentative agreement squarely addresses the challenging health care costs and competitive issues we face. These were complex and difficult negotiations, which required creativity and tough choices on both sides."
Labor leaders said that the union members' truculence in the dispute, including pressuring consumers to shop elsewhere, would discourage other companies from trying to scale back health coverage.
For the grocery chains, there is a big fear they will have a hard time luring back their customer base.
"I've gotten in the habit of shopping here," said John Wright, 57, as he stood outside a Trader Joe's store in Silver Lake. "The milk is cheaper and better. I never crossed the picket lines and Vons is going to have a hard time getting me back."
Douglas Dority, president of the food and commercial workers' union, said the dispute was "one of the most successful strikes in history."
Safeway's workers went on strike on Oct. 11, and the next day, in an act of solidarity, Albertsons and Ralphs locked out their employees.
"In Southern California, workers were given no choice but to fight," Mr. Dority said.
Many picketing workers and many labor leaders criticized the food and commercial workers' union for not making adequate preparations for a long dispute and for not maximizing pressure on the companies early on.
The ratification vote is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Under the new lower tier, union and company officials said, supermarket clerks and new cashiers would begin at $8.90 an hour, down from the $9.80 in the old contract. Their top pay would be $15.10 an hour, down from $17.90 for current workers.
Management would contribute $1.10 an hour for health insurance for new hires, compared with $3.80 for current workers. Management had sought to make those contributions only to workers who joined the companies' health plans, but agreed to make them for all workers.
The union persuaded management to contribute nearly $190 million to a fund to protect the health plan. And each worker will receive a payment averaging about $500 in the first and third years of the contract.
For many workers the dispute meant weeks of misery. No longer able to afford child care, many said they left their children alone when they served their four hours on the picket line for $25 a day.
Many say they will vote for the contract, even if it falls far short of their hopes. There was a certain esprit de corps on Friday, some light at the end of the tunnel, a decent paycheck in sight. They said they were not angry at their union for accepting a deal that they said would drive a wedge between new workers and long-time workers with higher pay.
"It was a David versus Goliath thing," said Cliff Shanklin, a Ralphs worker. "It was local workers versus national companies. They could have stayed out all year. We couldn't."
Barbara Harrison, 57, a bakery worker at Ralphs, said she had two years before retiring.
"I don't worry about me," she said. "But with treatment like this from the company, with this kind of contract, the middle class is just becoming the lower class. But I'll vote for it. I want to go back to work."
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