February 27, 2004

Supermarkets, Union Reach Tentative Pact


LOS ANGELES, Feb. 26 Supermarket executives and union leaders involved in a four-and-a-half month-old labor dispute in Southern California reached a tentative agreement last night after 16 days of intense bargaining, union leaders said.

Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and with California's three largest grocery chains reached the deal which is expected to end a dispute involving 59,000 striking or locked-out workers at 852 supermarkets.

Greg Denier, a spokesman for the union, declined to disclose details about the settlement.

The dispute, which is one of the largest labor disputes in the nation in years, has inconvenienced millions of shoppers, created great financial pain for union members and caused the three supermarket chains to lose more than $2 billion in sales.

The dispute involves Albertsons, Kroger, which owns the Ralphs grocery chain, and Safeway, which owns the Vons and Pavilions grocery chains.

Peter Hurgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, has met with the two sides and repeatedly pushed them to reach a deal. The dispute has become a huge cause for all of organized labor, and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential campaign, walked yesterday alongside strikers at a Vons supermarket in Santa Monica.

Vons and Pavilions workers went on strike on Oct. 11 when the union resisted management's demands to create a lower wage tier and a reduced health benefit plan for new employees and to cap the companies' health contributions for current workers. To show solidarity with Safeway, Albertsons and Ralphs locked out their workers the next day.

Officials knowledgeable about the negotiations said the union had agreed to a lower wage tier for new workers. These officials said that the companies had pressured the union into agreeing to have newly hired workers pay some weekly premiums for their health insurance, which is a departure from the policy with current workers, who pay no premium. In addition, these officials said, the union agreed in large part to the companies' demand to freeze their contributions to the health plan for current workers. But these officials said the union achieved its objective of persuading the companies to set aside their demand for a separate health and pension fund for future employees.

The union was under intense pressure to settle because its members were feeling so financially battered by the dispute and because the union and its Southern California locals were financially weakened by the tens of millions of dollars spent to finance strike benefits.

Charlie LeDuff reported from Los Angeles, and Steven Greenhouse from New York.


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