By Jacob Adelman
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Negotiators for workers at Southern California's largest grocery chains reached a deal Monday to avoid a repeat of a four-month strike eight years ago that cost the industry $2 billion and created havoc for shoppers.
Both sides worked through a deadline Sunday, when more than 60,000 workers could have walked off the job, and bargained through the night to reach the tentative pact addressing health benefits.
The deal likely came as a relief to many shoppers. Supermarket executives had planned to close hundreds of stores if there had been a strike.
"The grocery workers of Southern California stood together, strong and united, throughout this long and difficult process," locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers unions said in a news release. "They refused to accept anything less than a contract that protects their wages, benefits and working conditions."
Members were set to vote on the deal Saturday. The union said details of the terms won't be publicly released until the vote is taken.
Some 62,000 grocery employees have been working without a contract since March while discussions continued with The Vons Cos.; Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.; and Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu Inc.
The three companies released a joint statement lauding the deal, which they said "continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care - while allowing us to be competitive in the marketplace."
David Smith, a Pepperdine University professor who studies labor markets, was not surprised to see the two sides quickly come to an agreement amid the threat of a strike.
With unemployment at 12.1 percent in California, workers evidently feared that they would find little public sympathy if they voluntarily walked off the job.
Rick Hernandez, a meat clerk at an Albertson's in the seaside community of Marina del Rey, said the last walkout in 2003 was a strain for him and his family and he was glad not to have to go through it again.
"Things are tough right now," he said. "Nobody needed this strike."
The market chains, meanwhile, were likely reluctant to invite shutdowns and picket lines that might alienate shoppers already spending less due to the economic downturn.
Shopping regularly at non-traditional grocery options such as Trader Joe's Co. or the fresh food sections at some Target Brands Inc. stores could have led some shoppers to snub established supermarket chains even after a strike ended.
Ralphs had indicated it would initially close all 250 of its stores if there had been a strike; Albertsons had said it could shutter up to 100 of its locations, while Vons had said its stores would remain open.
"Both sides saw that the labor disruption would have been harmful for them," Smith said.
The unions and the markets announced in July that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but payments to the union health care trust fund remained a major sticking point.
Union members voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize their leaders to call a strike.
Those leaders said they were responding to what they characterized as the chains' delaying tactics when they issued the required 72-hour notice Thursday evening to cancel the contract extension under which they had been working since March.
But after the Sunday evening deadline came and went with neither a strike nor a deal, store employees returned to work Monday.
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