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Bitter Bargain

The United Food and Commercial Workers' Union in California approved a new contract Saturday, ending a grocery workers' strike and lockout that lasted nearly five months. Jeffrey Kaye reports on the reasons behind the dispute and its national implications.

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  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    After nearly five months on the picket lines, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, who lined up at voting stations over the weekend, ratified a new contract with an 86 percent "yes" vote. The strike and lockout in southern and central California affected some 850 supermarkets, and received national attention because of labor's focus on health coverage.

    The ratified contract contains no raises for the 70,000 supermarket workers it covers, but it does preserve most health benefits for current employees. However, new workers will receive lower wages and fewer benefits. Many workers said they voted for the contract reluctantly. The lengthy labor dispute took an emotional and financial toll. Baker Jodie Rigdon, a single mom, said she was just worn down.

  • JODIE RIGDON:

    I've got bill collectors calling from Timbuktu and back, and still have to provide for three kids. And I had to accept it. I didn't want to, but I had to.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Despite the contract's overwhelming approval, many workers are bitter.

  • WORKER ON STREET:

    It is just disgusting. Five months to be treated like cattle…

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Even though labor made major concessions to the supermarket chains, union leader Rick Icaza claims victory. Icaza, president of the Los Angeles local of the supermarket workers' union, was labor's lead negotiator.

    RICK ICAZA, United Food and Commercial Workers Union: From my perception, it is a fantastic deal in the sense that we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. We preserved our health care for our members, we preserved their pension.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Did you sacrifice the future employees for the current employees?

  • RICK ICAZA:

    Not really, because for all intents and purposes, our main thrust, obviously, was to protect the current employees. And with respect to future employees, we set the structure so that we can negotiate in the future. And there's no question in my mind that three years from now, we can readdress those issues.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    For current workers, the three-year contract preserves free company-paid health insurance for the next two years. After that, employees will pay up to $780 a year.

  • MAN:

    If you're drowning in debt and you have to go back to work, I understand that. But just understand what you're voting for, people.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    As workers stood waiting to vote, union member Patrick Reed tried to explain a contract that he said troubled him.

  • PATRICK REED:

    If it was four and a half months ago and they would have offered this, we would have soundly rejected it.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Why?

  • PATRICK REED:

    Because they've come in too low. For me, personally, the biggest is the medical plan. If I was under this medical plan for the last 26 years…I've had six surgeries, okay, I would not be able to afford my lifestyle under this medical plan that ends in three years.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Other workers we spoke to expressed frustration and dismay at the two-tiered system the contract creates. In addition to lower wages, new hires will get no health benefits for one year.

  • RODNEY KAGAWA:

    I believe they're just building a class of lower-class, and then eliminating the middle class.

  • LAYLA TYLER:

    I voted no.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Why?

  • LAYLA TYLER:

    Because, like, our new hires are basically going to reflect on us. They are going to cut our hours because they are getting paid less, because there is a two- tier system here. It's really weak. It's a really weak contract. I'm kind of ashamed at the union for actually putting this out to people, because with us being out as long as we are, they're going to vote for what they want, you know. They want to go back to work.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA, says while the union made major concessions, the industry must also nurse its wounds.

  • KENT WONG:

    In my estimation, both sides lost. The supermarket industry lost $2 billion in profits over the course of this five-month strike. This absolutely is a watershed strike in relation to the supermarket industry; the longest and most bitter strike in the history of the supermarket industry in this country. In addition, the strike will be remembered as one that has elevated the issue of the crisis in health care to a national issue.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    During the labor conflict, the supermarket chains Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway, Ralphs, owned by the Kroger Company, and Albertsons, bargained as a unit. Representatives of those companies would not comment for this story. Nationally, the grocery industry will soon be negotiating other labor contracts. For business, this dispute should send a cautionary message, says labor expert Wong.

  • KENT WONG:

    I don't think that it's going to embolden management somehow to think that this is going to be an easy grab for them to either take away health care benefits or to implement two- tiered systems. If you look at the hit that the supermarket industry took these five months, this is not something that other managers and CEOs across the country are going to say, "great, that's the path we're going to take as well."

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Union members should start returning to the stores in a couple of days. Today, shoppers expressed relief that the dispute is finally over.

  • JEFF LAMORE:

    I'm glad it's done with. So now you can go back into the store. Today was especially the first time heading back in, and stuff. Besides using an ATM machine, that's about it. I don't need to go inside.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The strike received wide public support, and supermarkets are already offering discounts to lure back customers who became accustomed to shopping elsewhere.

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