Southern California grocery workers ratify new contract

Affected by the pandemic, fueled by fury over stagnant wages and alarmed by inflation, Southern California’s union grocery workers got their biggest pay rise in decades on Thursday. as they ratify a new contract with the region’s largest food chain.

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

After four months of negotiations, Kroger, the parent company of the Ralphs and Albertsons, which owns Pavilions and Vons, agreed to a 19% to 31% increase on current wages for most workers. Part-time employees, about 70% of the workforce, are guaranteed to work 28 hours a week, up from 24.

“Companies fear a strike,” said Kathy Finn, secretary and treasurer of United Food and Commercial worker Local 770 in Los Angeles. “Our members are more united and fight than they have been in a long time.”

Ralphs said the company was “satisfied” with the deal, and Albertsons called it “fair and equal.” Neither company explained the reasoning behind the massive pay increase, more than 2½ times what the chains initially suggested.

Across California and the country, labor shortages caused by the pandemic have made it harder to retain and hire employees. Workers are leaving their jobs to find better-paying work, and older employees, fearing infection, are leaving in droves.

Two men and a woman sit at a table.

Andrew Hausermann, center, answers questions as Southern California grocery workers vote on union contracts at UFCW Local 324.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“This is the best deal 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 most severe 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 Southern California’s grocery industry has dropped from 90 percent to about 35 percent as big box stores without big boxes expand into the food sector, he said. The new UFCW contract will help combat unaffiliated 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. Given Southern California’s high cost of living, this contract could bring experienced workers back into union shops who have retired early because of COVID and are now unable to pay their bills. “.

In January, companies proposed raising wages of just $1.80 an hour over three years for their highest-paid longtime employees including treasurers. In the end, they agreed to $4.25, bringing that salary to $26.75.

Another group, which includes lower-paid fast-food workers and those stocking shelves, will get a $5.25 increase over three years, bringing their pay to $22.27. Workers will advance to the top pay ranks at a faster rate and health benefits will expand.

The bottom third of the workforce, bag-packers and clerks’ maids, will get a 95 cent increase to $16.34 an hour.

The pay rise for the highest-paid workers also applies to Food 4 Less, a Kroger-owned chain of 6,200 workers whose contract last year tied to projected wages at Ralphs.

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

Jay D Willey, 42, butcher manager at Vons in Anaheim, was among tens of thousands of union grocery 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 Southern California employees, also raised $4.50 over three years for top cashiers, clerks, and butchers, along with an additional $4.50 over three years. with minimum 28 hour guarantee for most parts -timers.

Occidental University politics professor Peter Dreier, co-author of a recent Kroger Economic Roundtable report, said: “Grocery store workers and their unions have win big. Polls show the public sympathizes with essential workers suffering during the pandemic, and companies will lose a lot of business if there is a strike, he said.

The Economic Roundtable report notes that the real wages of Kroger workers in Southern California have fallen sharply since 1990, when the highest-paid food workers earned $13.65 an hour, the equivalent of equivalent to $28.32 today. The report said the 22% drop in wages worsened as the company shifted more workers to part-time “so few of the highest-paid frontline workers earn middle-class incomes.” “, the report said.

Jay D Willey, 42, started minimum wage bagger at age 18 and worked his way up to meat manager, a union position, at Anaheim Hills Vons. The father-of-two calculated the three-year $5 increase that union negotiators first proposed.

“Even if we paid $5 upfront, that wouldn’t help us catch the curve of inflation over the past 20 years,” he said. His current salary of $24.78 an hour, along with the salary of his wife, a clerical worker, is not enough for the family to move out of their two-bedroom apartment and buy a house. , he say.

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

If low wages and worries about inflation have boosted grocery workers’ strength, the pandemic has increased their anger. They are considered “essential” and hailed as “heroes”, but complain that the companies failed to provide protective equipment in time and let risk wages expire after two months.

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

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

“After this pandemic, we took the opportunity to stand up and say to companies, ‘You guys owe us a lot and we’re trying to collect it now,’” Willey said.

Ashley Manning, a 32-year-old florist at a Ralphs in San Pedro, has contracted COVID. Her daughter, mother and grandmother were also sick. Manning, who voted for the contract, said: “We put our lives to make this company billions of dong in profit. “We deserve more than that.”

The single mother makes a living on $18 an hour. Then she lost her job for three months during the pandemic and had to move out of an apartment she could no longer afford. “The company didn’t have plexiglass at the time, and they didn’t provide us with protective equipment,” she said.

Manning of 9 years old has dropped out of school and she has no babysitter. But her bosses, she said, pressured her to work 48 hours a week, instead of her usual 40. Her 79-year-old grandmother volunteered to help, but then passed away from the virus after three weeks in the hospital.

Manning welcomes new contract provisions to prevent forced overtime and establish health and safety committees in every store.

And with the extra $5.25 an hour over three years, she says, she’ll be able to pay the bills, pay for higher gas prices and send her daughter to the YMCA for after-hours care. learn. Southern California grocery workers ratify new contract

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