Food workers in Southern California sign new contract

Whipped up by the pandemic, spurred on by anger over wage stagnation and alarmed by inflation, unionized Southern California food workers clinched their biggest pay rises in decades Thursday as they ratified a new deal with the region’s biggest grocery chains.

The overwhelming approval of the three-year deal followed authorization to strike two weeks earlier by union locales representing 47,000 workers in 540 stores ranging from Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

After four months of negotiations, Kroger, Ralphs’ parent company, and Albertsons, owner of Pavilions and Vons, agreed to wage increases of 19% to 31% above current wage levels for most workers. Part-time employees, around 70% of the workforce, are guaranteed a weekly working time of 28 instead of 24 hours.

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

Ralphs said the company was “pleased” with the agreement and Albertsons called it “fair and equitable.” Neither company elaborated on the rationale behind the large pay rise, which was more than two and a half times what the chains initially proposed.

Andrew Hausermann answers questions as food workers vote in Southern California

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

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Across California and across the country, a pandemic-related labor shortage has made it harder to retain and hire staff. Workers are quitting for higher-paying jobs and older workers are retiring in droves for fear of contagion.

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

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

“Walmart and Target are running out of supplies in key categories because they don’t have enough workers in the stores or warehouses. Given the high cost of living in Southern California, this contract could bring back veteran workers to union stores — people who took early retirement because of Covid and are now unable to pay their bills.”

In January, the companies proposed a pay increase of just $1.80 an hour over three years for the highest-paid long-term employees, including cashiers. In the end, they agreed to $4.25 and increased those wages to $26.75.

Another group, including low-paid delicatessen workers and high-bay warehouse workers, will receive a $5.25 increase over three years, bringing their wages to $22.27. Workers will move faster to the top wage bracket and medical benefits will be expanded.

The bottom third of the workforce, baggers and clerks, will get a pay rise from 95 cents to $16.34 an hour.

The pay rises for high-paying workers also apply to Food 4 Less, a Kroger-owned chain with 6,200 employees whose contract last year was tied to expected pay rises at Ralphs.

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

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

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this month, UFCW workers at Stater Bros, a 15,000-worker chain in Southern California, also received hefty bonuses of $4.50 over three years for top-notch cashiers, clerks and meat cutters, as well as a 28-hour minimum guarantee for most part-time workers.

“Food workers and their union have made a big win,” said Peter Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College and a co-author of a recent nonprofit Economic Roundtable report on Kroger. Polls showed the public had sympathy for essential workers suffering hardship during the pandemic and companies would have lost many businesses in the event of a strike, he said.

The roundtable report documented a sharp decline in real wages for Kroger workers in Southern California since 1990, when the highest-paid grocery workers made $13.65 an hour, which is $28.32 today. That 22 percent drop in wages worsened as the company switched more workers to part-time, “so few of the highest-paid frontline workers earn middle-class incomes,” the report said.

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

“Even if we got $5 upfront, that wouldn’t have put us on the inflation curve for the last 20 years,” he said. His current hourly wage of $24.78, along with his wife’s clerical salary, is not enough to get them out of their two-bedroom apartment and buy a house, he said.

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

If low wages and inflation worries fueled worker militancy, the pandemic has charged the anger of food workers. They were viewed as “essential” and hailed as “heroes” but complained that companies failed to provide protective equipment in a timely manner and phased out the hazard pay after two months.

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

At Local 324 in Orange County, 3,670 out of 14,000 grocery workers became ill. And at Local 1167, which represents workers primarily in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial Counties, 5,770 of 17,000 members fell ill. Food workers in Southern California sign new contract

Dais Johnston

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