Southern California workers ratify new contract

Driven by the pandemic, driven by fury over wage stagnation and alarmed by inflation, unionized grocery workers in Southern California got their biggest pay rise in decades on Thursday when they signed a new contract with the largest food chains. of the region.

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

After four months of bargaining, Kroger, the parent company of Ralphs, and Albertsons, owner of Pavilions and Vons, agreed to increase from 19% to 31% from current wage levels for most workers. Part-time employees, about 70% of the workforce, are guaranteed 28 hours per week, compared to 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 for a long time.”

Ralphs said the company was “satisfied” with the deal and Albertsons called it “fair and equitable”. Neither company explained the reasons behind the large wage increase, more than 2.5 times what the chains originally proposed.

Across California and the nation, a labor shortage caused by the pandemic has made it more difficult to retain and hire staff. Workers are laying off for higher-paying jobs, and older employees, fearing an infection, are retiring in droves.

Two men and a woman sit at a table.

Andrew Hausermann, center, answers questions as 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, chief executive officer of Strategic Resource Group, a leading retail consulting firm. “We have the greatest shortage of workers 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 sector dropped from 90% to about 35% as non-union big-boxes expanded into the food sector, he said. The new UFCW contract will help thwart non-union competition, Flickinger said.

“Walmart and Target are running out of stock 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 skilled workers back to union stores – people who retired early from COVID and now can’t pay their bills. “

In January, the companies had proposed an increase of just $ 1.80 per 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 the low-income butchers and inventory workers, will receive a $ 5.25 raise over three years, raising their wages to $ 22.27. Workers will move to higher wage levels at a faster rate and medical benefits will expand.

The bottom third of the workforce, baggers and clerks, will receive a 95 cent increase to $ 16.34 per hour.

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

 A man with a beard and hat stands while wearing a blue shirt.

Jay D Willey, 42, a meat manager at a Vons in Anaheim, was among tens of thousands of union workers 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 chain with 15,000 employees in Southern California, also reaped hefty increases of $ 4.50 over three years for frontline cashiers, clerks, and meat cutters, combined. to a minimum 28-hour warranty for most-timers.

“The grocery workers and their union got a big win,” said Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College, co-author of a recent report of the Non-Profit Economic Roundtable about Kroger. Polls showed that the public was sympathetic to essential workers who suffered hardships during the pandemic and that companies would lose a lot of business in the event of a strike, she said.

The Economic Roundtable report documented a sharp 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% drop in pay worsened as the company shifted more workers to part-time “so few of even the best-paid frontline employees earn middle-class income,” the report said.

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

“Even if we had gotten $ 5 up front, it wouldn’t have hit the inflation curve for the past 20 years,” he said. His current wage of $ 24.78 an hour, coupled with his wife’s wages as an employee, is not enough for the family to move out of their two-bedroom apartment and buy a house, he said.

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

If low wages and concerns about inflation have fueled the militancy of grocery workers, the pandemic has turned their anger into turmoil. They were considered “essential” and hailed as “heroes,” but complained that the companies did not offer timely protective gear and let the risk allowance 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 reportedly contracted 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 employees fell ill. And at Local 1167, which represents workers primarily in Riverside, San Bernardino, and Imperial counties, 5,770 out of 17,000 members fell ill.

“After this pandemic, we had a chance to stand up and tell companies, ‘You guys owe us a lot and we’re trying to raise now,’” Willey said.

Ashley Manning, a 32-year-old flower manager at a Ralphs in San Pedro, has contracted COVID. Her daughter, her mother and her grandmother also fell ill. “We’ve put our lives on the line for this company to make billions in profits,” said Manning, who voted for the contract. “We deserved more.”

The single mother lived on salary after salary of $ 18 an hour. She then she lost three months of work during the pandemic and she had to leave an apartment that she could no longer afford. “The company didn’t have plexiglass at the time and they didn’t provide us with protective gear,” she said.

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

Manning applauds the provisions of the new contract to prevent forced overtime and set up health and safety committees in every store.

And with the extra $ 5.25 an hour in three years, she said, she’ll be able to pay bills, afford higher gas prices, and send her daughter to the YMCA for after-school care.