Grocery workers in Southern California ratify new contract

Whipped by the pandemic, fueled by rage over wage stagnation and alarmed by inflation, Southern California unionized grocery workers achieved their biggest wage increases in decades on Thursday when they ratified a new contract with the region’s largest food chains.

The overwhelming approval of the three-year contract, with 87%, followed strike-approval votes two weeks earlier by local unions representing 47,000 employees in 540 Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilion stores from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

After four months of negotiations, Kroger, Ralph’s parent company, and Albertsons, which owns Pavilions and Vons, agreed to raise 19-31% compared to the current wage level for most workers. Part-time workers, around 70% of the workforce, are guaranteed 28 hours a week, up from 24.

“Businesses were afraid of a strike,” said Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 in Los Angeles. “Our members were more united and militant than they have been in a long time.”

Ralphs said the company was “satisfied” with the deal, and Albertsons called it “fair and equitable.” None of the companies elaborated on the reasons behind the big pay rise, more than 2½ times what the chains originally proposed.

Across California and the country, a pandemic-driven labor shortage has made it harder to retain and hire staff. Workers are retiring to get higher-paying jobs, and older workers, fearing infection, are retiring in droves.

Andrew Hausermann, center, answers questions while Southern California grocery workers vote on a union contract at UFCW Local 324.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“This is the best contract for employees in 20 years, but also for companies,” said Burt Flickinger, CEO of Strategic Resource Group, a leading retail consulting firm. “We have the most acute shortage of labor since World War II. Higher wages and benefits are an investment in worker loyalty and productivity. “

In 25 years, union membership in the Southern California grocery industry has dropped from 90% to about 35% as unaffiliated grocery stores expanded into food, he said. The new UFCW contract will help counter non-union competition, Flickinger said.

“Walmart and Target are running out of stocks in key categories because they do not have enough employees in stores or department stores. With the high cost of living in Southern California, this contract could bring experienced workers back to union stores – people who retired early because of COVID and now can not pay their bills. “

In January, companies had proposed an increase of just $ 1.80 an hour over three years for the highest paid long-term employees including cashiers. They ended up agreeing on $ 4.25, raising those salaries to $ 26.75.

Another group, including low-wage delicatessen workers and off-the-shelf retailers, will get a $ 5.25 boost over three years, which will raise their pay to $ 22.27. Workers will evolve to the top pay levels at a faster pace, and the medical benefits will expand.

The bottom third of the workforce, backers and clerk helpers, will see an increase of 95 cents to $ 16.34 an hour.

The wage increases for top-paid workers also apply to Food 4 Less, a Kroger-owned chain of 6,200 workers whose contract last year was tied to expected increases at Ralphs.

    A man with a beard and hat is wearing a blue T-shirt.

Jay D Willey, 42, a butcher at a Vons in Anaheim, was among tens of thousands of unionized grocery workers who this week voted for a new contract between United Food and Commercial Workers and supermarkets in Southern California.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this month, UFCW workers at Stater Bros., a chain of 15,000 employees in Southern California, also achieved large increases of $ 4.50 over three years for top-line cashiers, clerks and meat cutters, along with a 28-hour minimum warranty for most -timer.

“Merchant workers and their union achieved a great victory,” said Occidental College Police Professor Peter Dreier, co-author of a recent nonprofit Economic Roundtable report on Kroger. Opinion polls showed the public was sympathetic to significant workers suffering hardship during the pandemic, and companies would have lost a lot of business in the event of a strike, he said.

The Economic Roundtable report documented a sharp drop in real wages for Southern California Kroger workers since 1990, when the highest-paid food clerks earned $ 13.65 an hour, or $ 28.32 today. The 22% drop in wages worsened as the company shifted more part-time workers, “so few of even the best-paid front-line workers earn middle-class incomes,” the report said.

Jay D Willey, 42, began as a minimum wage sucker at age 18 and worked his way up to butcher, a union position, at an Anaheim Hills Vons. The father of two reckoned with the $ 5 increase over three years that union negotiators first proposed.

“Even if we had gotten $ 5 in advance, it would not catch us up to the inflation curve over the last 20 years,” he said. His current salary of $ 24.78 an hour, along with his wife’s salary as a clerk, is not enough for the family to move out of their one-bedroom apartment and buy a home, he said.

Now he fears “inflation will continue”, one of the reasons he voted against ratifying the contract.

If low wages and inflation concerns fueled the militancy of the merchant workers, the pandemic put turbo on their anger. They were considered “essential” and hailed as “heroes”, but complained that companies failed to offer timely protective equipment and allowed risk payment to expire after two months.

Among the 20,000 grocery workers represented by UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, 7,730 were reported to have caught coronavirus, according to data provided to the union by the companies.

At Local 324, based in Orange County, 3,670 grocery workers out of 14,000 became ill. And at Local 1167, which represents workers mainly in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties, 5,770 out of 17,000 members fell ill.

“After this pandemic, we had a chance to get up and say to the companies, ‘You owe us a lot, and we’re trying to collect now,'” Willey said.

Ashley Manning, a 32-year-old flower manager at a Ralphs in San Pedro, caught COVID. Her daughter, mother and grandmother also became ill. “We’re risking our lives for this company to make billions in profits,” said Manning, who voted for the contract. “We deserved more.”

The single mother lived paycheck to paycheck at $ 18 an hour. Then she lost three months of work during the pandemic and had to move out of an apartment she could no longer afford. “The company did not have plexiglass at the time and they did not provide us with protective equipment,” she said.

Manning’s 9-year-old was out of school and she had no child care. But her bosses, she said, pressured her to work 48 hours a week instead of her regular 40. Her 79-year-old grandmother volunteered to help, but then died of the virus after three weeks in hospital.

Manning welcomed the provisions of the new contract to prevent forced overtime and establish health and safety committees in each store.

And with the extra $ 5.25 an hour over three years, she said, she will be able to pay bills, afford higher gas prices and send her daughter to the YMCA for continuing education.

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