Tentative Deal Reached In Grocery Strike Negotiations

Agreement Not Finalized Until Grocery Union Members Ratify It

A tentative deal has been struck in the negotiations between representatives from three supermarket chains and the union representing 62,000 Southland grocery store workers, the president of the workers union confirmed.

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When asked about the latest development, Mickey Kasparian, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, texted 10News reporter Jennifer Jensen shortly after 11:30 a.m. with this message: "Yes, we have a deal that protects our members' healthcare."

10News spoke with Kasparian minutes after the announcement.

"There's a lot of adrenaline," he said. "We went about 36 straight hours, but we got it done… I am excited for our members. We would expect them to definitely accept it."

Grocery store worker Daejha Toney told 10News, "I received a text message and I was just like, 'Yes!' It was a sigh of relief. It was like, 'I can relax now.'"

"Oh, everybody is on cloud nine," said Dana Williams, an Albertsons employee who has worked in the grocery business for almost 30 years. "They know that something positive has been reached and we don't have to stress."

Details of the agreement have not yet been made public. Any tentative agreement struck at the negotiation table will still have to be voted on by union members before it is approved. The agreement will be presented to union members for ratification later this week.

According to Kasparian, the union vote will take place Friday at the Scottish Rites Center.

Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons issued the following joint statement:

"We are pleased to have reached a tentative settlement agreement with the union that continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care – while allowing us to be competitive in the marketplace. We appreciate the hard work, support and patience that everyone has shown during the past seven months, and particularly the past few weeks. Details of the tentative agreement were not made public pending ratification."

The union had threatened a worker strike if negotiations were not completed to their satisfaction by a Sunday 7:10 p.m. deadline but at least one of the stores involved issued a statement Sunday night that stated negotiations were continuing.

Albertsons issued the following statement shortly after the union-imposed deadline passed:

Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons are still at the table with the union. Progress is being made, but we do not yet have an agreement. Even though the 72-hour notice period has expired, nothing has changed. The terms of our most recent contract -- including wages and benefits -- remain in place, and our stores are open to serve customers as they usually are. We are still hopeful that a contract will be reached soon.

Contract talks will continue "as long as we feel progress is being made towards a fair, equitable agreement," according to Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770. "We must preserve good jobs in our community, and stand up for all workers struggling in this economy. If we can do that by negotiating a fair deal that shows respect for our members, we will. But we will not hesitate to stand up for ourselves if talks stall again.

Our hope is to reach a conclusion to these talks that allows our members to preserve their jobs, keep our employers profitable and show our appreciation to our customers for their continued support."

Local 770, which represents 30,000 store clerks and other types of employees in Los Angeles County, warned on its website that "if the employers refuse to adequately fund healthcare, we will be forced to walk out and call a strike. If there is meaningful progress, we will continue to negotiate."

In a 7 a.m. update, Local 770 reported that the parties are "still negotiating" and urged grocery clerks to stay on the job until told otherwise by a union representative.

Union representatives and representatives for Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons met at an undisclosed location Sunday while shop stewards passed out picket signs. A union spokesman said at the time that no progress had been made.

Clerks at Ralphs and Vons supermarkets in Santa Monica said the two chains had not reduced their deliveries of fresh baked goods, produce, milk and meat to the stores. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said the fresh deliveries of perishables may indicate that management at the Kroger Co. and Safeway, which own Ralphs and Vons/Pavilions, respectively, are not anticipating closing their stores.

"We've heard that, and I think that does mean something," Local 770 spokesman Mike Shimpock. "And if they start to move in the negotiations, we intend to stay at the table" and not call a strike, he said.

A spokeswoman for Ralphs told KNX Newsradio the store planned to donate perishable goods in its store to local food banks if a strike is called and shops are closed.

Union locals from Santa Maria to the Mexican border served notice at 7:10 p.m. Thursday that workers would walk off their jobs Sunday night if they did not see movement from the national chains. The deadline was allowed to lapse.

Health insurance benefits are a major point of contention, with the companies offering an insurance package that union officials say would run out of money in 16 months. Under the most recent offer, workers would pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage, but the company contribution to health care costs has not been announced. Negotiators are also reported to be far apart on pay rates.

"They're sitting on their piles of cash, and they're throwing us quarters," Shimpock told City News Service. The union claims the three chains made $3 billion in profits last year and distributed $500 million to their shareholders.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Sunday urged grocery workers and supermarkets to negotiate agreement to avoid a strike. Albertsons issued a statement saying the stores remain committed to reaching a deal.

"Progress is being made, but we do not yet have an agreement," according to the statement, which was issued Sunday night. "Even though the 72-hour notice period has expired, nothing has changed. The terms of our most recent contract -- including wages and benefits -- remain in place, and our stores are open to serve customers as they usually are. We are still hopeful that a contract will be reached soon."

Ralphs has said it would close its stores if a strike is closed, but Vons has vowed to stay open with replacement workers and management.

Christie Ly, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, said the number of stores the Minnesota-based chain closes in a strike would depend on management's ability to "spread our resources to maintain a high level of customer service. We intend for most of our stores to be open."

Unions held a candlelight vigil Sunday night outside a Pavilions store in Beverly Hills "to show the market corporations their moral obligation to bring this conflict to a fair resolution," Icaza said.

During a 141-day lockout in 2003-04, the stores hired temporary workers, and some of the chains were fined for rehiring regular employees under aliases. The replacement workers all lost their jobs when a new contract was signed, and the lockout cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion.

The chains are now in a tighter competitive situation then they were earlier in the decade because of the advent of specialty food stores and the entry of major discounters, such as Wal-Mart and Target, into the grocery business.

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