SAN FRANCISCO -- Labor scored a victory Tuesday when union leaders and Raley's struck a tentative agreement, ending a nine-day strike at the Northern California grocery chain and closing the deal on the third major grocery contract that keeps health benefits under union control.
The announcement of a tentative deal came after a marathon negotiating session in San Francisco that began Sunday and went into early Tuesday morning. United Food and Commercial Workers Union leaders said they were preparing to submit the settlement to union members for a ratification vote in the next two to three weeks. The proposed agreement also will be given to workers at Raley's Bel Air chain, which was not part of the strike.
Picket lines quickly dispersed outside Raley's and Nob Hill Foods by midday as news of the tentative agreement trickled down to union members. About 7,000 striking workers headed back to their jobs and freshly trained replacement workers packed up to head home.
"Some stay, some leave, some are coming back," said Lynne Drews, working a bakery shift at Nob Hill Foods in Walnut Creek. "People are stepping over each other." Drews said she was one of about eight store employees who resigned from the union to work through the strike.
On her way home from the Walnut Creek store was Carla Page, a replacement worker who had filled in for five days of the strike. Page, who traveled from Fairfield, said the shifts gave her a break from her full-time job as a stay-at-home mom with six kids.
"It was a chance to make some extra money," she said. "It was well worth it."
The company hired about 500 replacement workers to cover vacancies at all stores.
The employee moves were done quietly, though, and shoppers strolled the aisles unfazed; more obvious was the absence of the picket line that for more than a week had successfully deterred some customers and blocked deliveries.
Ron Lind, president of UFCW Local 5, said the union had prevailed in preserving the union-funded health plan, a major sticking point in negotiations that had dragged on for 15 months.
In a UFCW news release, labor leaders called the agreement "an important accomplishment for our members and retirees."
Raley's would not comment on details of the contract, but spokesman John Segale said the agreement "gives us the cost savings we were looking for."
Segale said the company has to lower costs to compete with the 240 or so nonunion grocery retailers that have opened in California and Nevada since 2008. Raley's operates about 120 stores in the two states.
Union workers went on strike Nov. 4 after the grocer attempted to impose wage cuts, restructure the employee health care plan and eliminate some retiree benefits. A federal mediator intervened to try to patch together an eleventh-hour agreement, but talks broke down again, leading to the first strike in the history of the 77-year-old company.
Union workers didn't go completely without a week's income; Local 5 spokesman Mike Henneberry said they received up to about $300 in strike pay.
Last week's deal with Safeway, UFCW's largest employer, may have spurred the Raley's agreement. Safeway and union leaders struck an agreement after 15 months of negotiations that also preserved the union health plan. The recent Save Mart contract similarly keeps union benefits in tact.
"Obviously, that creates some momentum," Lind said.
With the biggest labor battles behind them, Lind said he expected negotiations to go smoothly with the region's smaller grocers, such as Mollie Stone's and Draeger's.
"We think they will fall in line," he said.
But in the face of mounting competition from nonunion grocers, labor's victory may be short-lived. Supermarket industry expert David Livingston said Raley's workers will enjoy robust benefits for the next few years, but "the price that they pay for getting the benefits today is that their job will be eliminated some day down the road, because the overhead is too much."
With the pressure on full-bore from big-box food sellers like Walmart, which relies on low-wage and part-time workers, grocery stores have to continue finding ways to cut costs to stay competitive.
"It's a delicate balancing act," Livingston said. "The unions realize that these companies can't continue to pay these lavish benefits, or the inevitable will happen, and the inevitable is store closings."
Some employees, recognizing Raley's precarious situation, resigned from the union and worked through the strike. Candace Cole, a clerk at the Walnut Creek store, said she quit the union to help train replacement workers and keep the store running.
Cole, 23, pointed to the Safeway just around the corner, which probably scooped up many of the customers turned away by the picket line.
"I just want to keep this store alive," she said. "We have problems."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.
Raley's and Nob Hill Foods stores are located in 19 cities in the Bay Area:
Nob Hill Foods