Some of Southern California’s largest supermarket chains avoided a potential strike this week, after securing a new contract with thousands of employees. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, workers at many Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions now have an agreement that includes more pay and better safety measures, crucial wins for workers who have remained on the front lines of the pandemic for two years.
Since March 2020 grocery store workers were deemed essential, meaning they have stayed on the job — often without hazard or other extra pay — for years. In that same time, many of those same grocery chains have reported record profits as people were forced to stay home. The path to a new contract was particularly challenging for California workers, as Albertsons laid off hundreds of in-house grocery delivery drivers in January 2021 due to Assembly Bill 5, which allowed companies to identify parts of its workforce as contract employees. Around the same time, city councils throughout the state approved a temporary $4 to $5 “hero pay” increase, a non-permanent pay bump for some employees.
After Long Beach and Los Angeles County’s measures passed in early 2021, mega-chain Kroger responded by closing five Ralphs and Food 4 Less locations throughout the region. Kroger had previously threatened to shutter those same stores multiple times throughout the years, though worker rights organizations said the timing of the shutters made them feel retaliatory as employees pushed for higher wages.
Since March 2020, grocery store workers have been vocal in their complaints about safety protocols, aggressive customers, long hours, minimal pay increases, and executive pay. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Kroger’s operating profit doubled to $4.3 billion from 2019 to 2021. Kroger chief executive Rodney McMullen received a $22.4-million pay package in 2020, while the company ended a $2-an-hour hazard bonus for frontline workers after two months.
This isn’t the first time that strikes (or the threat of strikes) have hit area grocery chains. Back in 2019, Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions, and Albertsons employees authorized a strike and reached a three-year agreement. Some might also recall the 70,000 Southern California grocery workers who went on strike for four months before reaching a deal in 2003-2004.
The new agreement provides 47,000 employees with a $4.25 pay hike over three years, plus additional pay for other employees, reports the Associated Press. Major roads were secured with better pensions, improved benefits, and guaranteed hours for those with part-time status. The contract also includes provisions to establish health and safety committees at every Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions store so that, according to a union statement, employees have a say on safety issues.