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By PAI, ILCA Associate Member

SAN FRANCISCO (PAI)--In a major win for the United Food and Commercial Workers, 30,000 grocery workers in eight locals in Northern California were scheduled to vote by Feb. 11 on a 3-year contract with grocery chains there, led by Safeway and Kroger.

The new pact raises wages and, more importantly, preserves
company-paid health care for all workers, the union coalition said. Earlier this year, UFCW workers in Southern California approved a new contract making health care tougher for new hires.

The health care provisions are significant nationally because grocery chains, citing competition from Wal-Mart, demand their workers--many low-paid and subject to frequent injuries on the job--pick up much of their health care costs.

Meanwhile, conflict over company proposals for two-tier health care and wages led UFCW Local 7 leaders in Colorado to agree to let federal mediator Scott Beckenbaugh write the terms of their next contract. That pact would cover 17,500 workers in three chains in the Denver area and the states Front Range.

The Jan. 23 agreement in Northern California came after 17 days of marathon bargaining and shortly before a strike deadline, said the UFCW locals, grouped into the Bay Area Coalition.

"Because of the hard work and dedication of Bay Area UFCW members over the past year, we were able to preserve many very important contract provisions," the coalition said.

Aided by 80,000 supportive customers, the California Labor Federation and the Teamsters, "We were able to turn back many of the employers' most aggressive proposals, including employee healthcare premium co-pays, permanent two-tier wages, a company- controlled healthcare plan, and language that would have weakened job security," it added.

The unions also won limits on vendors stocking supermarket shelves and bans on low-paid courtesy and utility clerks doing higher-paid work. If the firms break that provision, they face fines equal to a day's pay and benefits, for each day of violation, donated to charity.

The Northern California union bargainers admitted that "given the current bargaining environment," they had "to agree to modify health benefits in order to mitigate the rising cost of the plans." New workers will get a new health plan with slightly longer periods for qualifying for it.

The pact also has contract ratification bonuses, payable within 30 days of ratification to all workers. The utility and courtesy clerks get a 15-cent bonus for each hour worked in the year preceding last Sept. 11, when the old contact expired. The others get a 25-cents-per-hour-in-the-year bonus.

Almost all the workers get raises of $250 over the 3-year life of the pact, which expires in Dec. 2006, its tables show.

Local 870, one of the eight, added the unions successfully turned back Safeway-Kroger proposals for two-tiered wages, health care and pensions. It also said the new pact improved grievance language and bans medical co-pays.


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