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Accord reached in grocer strike

By Jennifer Case

Feb. 26, 2004 9:00 p.m.

A tentative agreement was reached between grocery workers and
major supermarket chains Thursday that could put an end to the
nearly 20-week-long supermarket strike.

Details about the agreement were not disclosed by
representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
These last rounds of negotiations between the grocery workers union
and Albertsons Inc., Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc. have lasted more
than two weeks, said John Arnold, a spokesman for federal mediator
Peter Hurtgen.

Current talks have lasted longer than any other negotiations
attempted since the strikes began on Oct. 11, 2003, which started
speculation that an agreement may soon be reached.

“I hope the end is near. I think it is great that the
strikers will be able to go back and work and care for their
families,” said Abel Valenzuela, a professor of urban
planning and Chicana/o studies and an expert in day labor
studies.

The strike began about five months ago when negotiations between
UFCW and store officials ended because of disagreements over health
benefits and wages for new hires.

Employees are striking largely because of a plan proposed by
corporate management that would require workers to pay a portion of
their wages toward their existing health care benefits, which they
were previously not required to do.

The supermarket chains have argued that the proposal is fair
since most other employers in the country follow a similar
practice. They have also argued that they have to pass on health
care costs to workers to compete with Wal-Mart, which plans to
build several superstores ““ with groceries ““ in
California.

The strikes, which involve 70,000 employees and 859 stores from
San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield to San Diego, is the longest
running strike in the history of U.S. supermarket labor.

“I hope it’ll end quickly and in a good way, but I
have this sinking feeling it won’t end well. There’ll
be compromises that will hurt the union’s power,” said
Mike Laurin, a meat department manager at Ralphs in Koreatown.

The strikes have cost the companies involved a combined $1.5
billion in lost sales, according to analyst estimates.

If the strike comes to an end, some say there will be tension
between striking employees returning to work and temporary
workers.

Professors studying the strikes believe that if the strikes were
to end, a two-tiered wage system would be implemented. In this
system, the striking workers would be reinstated as employees under
a new wage, and the temporary employees hired during the strike
would be paid less.

“There was talk that some form of a two-tiered structure
would take place, but this is still not clear,” said Kent
Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and
Education.

If the two-tiered wage system is implemented in supermarkets,
both Wong and Valenzuela believe a negative dichotomy between
workers will develop.

“The two-tiered wage system will produce some tension and
conflict between the new and older workers. I think they should all
be paid the same wages,” Valenzuela said.

Earlier in the day, Westwood Ralphs store director Mike
Quiñones said employees have heard speculation about the
strike coming to an end, but they will not get their hopes up until
they see something in writing.

“I’d love to report good news, but we’re still
waiting,” Quiñones said.

With reports from Bruin wire services.

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