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Southern California grocers ratify new contract

Lashed by the pandemic, spurred by fury over stagnant wages and alarmed by inflation, unionized Southern California grocers secured their biggest pay raises in decades on Thursday by ratifying a new contract with the most major food chains in the region.

The landslide approval of the three-year contract followed strike authorization votes two weeks earlier by local unions representing 47,000 employees at 540 Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

After four months of negotiations, Kroger, the parent company of Ralphs, and Albertsons, which owns Pavilions and Vons, agreed to increases of 19% to 31% over current pay levels for most workers. Part-time employees, approximately 70% of the workforce, are guaranteed 28 hours per week, compared to 24 previously.

“Businesses were scared 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 “pleased” with the deal and Albertsons called it “fair and just”. Neither company explained the reasons for the significant increase in wages, more than two and a half times what the chains originally offered.

Andrew Hausermann answers questions as Southern California grocers vote

Buena Park, Calif., Monday, April 11, 2022 – Andrew Hausermann answers questions as Southern California grocers vote to approve a union contract at UFCW Local 324.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Across California and the country, a pandemic-induced labor shortage has made it harder to retain and hire staff. Workers are leaving for better paying jobs and older employees, fearing infection, are retiring in droves.

“It’s the best deal for employees in 20 years, but also for businesses,” said Burt Flickinger, chief executive of Strategic Resource Group, a leading consultancy. “We have the most acute labor shortage 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 food industry has fallen from 90% to around 35% as non-union big box stores have grown in food, he said . UFCW’s new contract will help counter non-union competition, Flickinger said.

“Walmart and Target are running out of inventory in key categories because they don’t have enough workers in stores or warehouses. With the high cost of living in Southern California, this contract could bring back experienced workers to unionized stores – people who took early retirement due to Covid and can no longer pay their bills.

In January, the companies proposed a raise of just $1.80 an hour over three years for the highest-paid long-term employees, including cashiers. They ended up accepting $4.25, raising those wages to $26.75.

Another group, including lower-paid butchers and storekeepers, will get a $5.25 raise over three years, raising their wages to $22.27. Workers will progress to higher wage levels at a faster rate and medical benefits will increase.

The bottom third of the workforce, baggers and clerk helpers, will get a 95-cent raise to $16.34 an hour.

Wage increases for the highest-paid workers also apply to Food 4 Less, a Kroger-owned chain with 6,200 workers, whose contract last year was tied to planned raises at Ralphs.

 Jay D Willey, 42, meat manager at Anaheim Von's, has worked in a grocery store since he was 18.

Jay D Willey, 42, a meat manager at Anaheim Von’s, was among tens of thousands of union grocers who voted this week on a new contract between United Food and Commercial Workers and Southern California supermarkets.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this month, UFCW workers at Stater Bros, a Southern California chain of 15,000 employees, also won big raises of $4.50 over three years for cashiers, clerks and meat cutters top-tier, as well as a minimum guarantee of 28 hours for most part-time employees. .

“Grocery store workers and their union have won a big victory,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, co-author of a recent report by the nonprofit Economic Roundtable on Kroger. . Polls showed public sympathy for essential workers who have suffered hardship during the pandemic, and businesses would have lost a lot of business in the event of a strike, he said.

The roundtable report documented a steep decline in real wages for Southern California Kroger workers since 1990, when the highest-paid food clerks earned $13.65 an hour, the equivalent of $28.32 today. That 22% pay cut worsened as the company shifted more part-time workers “so few front-line workers, even the highest-paid ones, are earning middle-class incomes,” says the report.

Jay DWilley, 42, started as a minimum-wage bagger at age 18 and worked his way up to meat manager, a union job, at an Anaheim Hills Vons. The father of two was counting on the $5 raise over three years that union negotiators had first proposed.

“Even if we got $5 up front, it wouldn’t catch up with us on 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 an office worker, is not enough to leave their two-bedroom apartment and buy a house, he said.

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

If low wages and inflation worries have fueled worker activism, the pandemic has spurred anger among grocery store workers. They were considered ‘essential’ and hailed as ‘heroes’, but complained that companies failed to provide protective equipment in a timely manner and let hazard pay expire after two months.

Of the 20,000 grocers represented by UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, 7,730 are believed to have caught the coronavirus, according to data provided to the union by the companies.

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

Los Angeles Times

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