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Save Mart bargaining likely to resume after contract rejection

Sacramento Bee, August 10, 2012

 By Dale Kasler

Back to the drawing board. With Save Mart Supermarkets employees rejecting a proposed contract by a wide margin this week, Northern California's unionized grocers are back where they were when negotiations began 10 months ago.

There's no contract — but no strike either. Save Mart and its employees, along with workers at Raley's and Safeway, will remain in contract limbo for some time to come. Some of the most painstaking labor negotiations Northern California has seen in years appear no closer to resolution.

The three companies have been pushing for reduced labor costs in order to regain market share from Wal-Mart and other low-cost, nonunion grocers. Save Mart was the first company to reach a tentative agreement that would yield savings — but its employees left little doubt how they feel about making concessions.

Workers rejected the Save Mart contract by 60 percent to 40 percent, the United Food and Commercial Workers disclosed Thursday. Even though the deal was approved by Central Valley workers, represented by UFCW Local 8 in Roseville, they were drowned out by a cascade of "no" votes from Locals 5 and 648 in the Bay Area.

Local 5 announced that union leaders were contacting Save Mart to resume negotiations, "in an attempt to address the issues and concerns raised by members about the proposed agreement during informational meetings."

The Modesto grocery chain had no comment.

While the vote was decisive, workers don't appear ready to grab picket signs. Union leaders noted that the 60-40 "no" vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to authorize a strike.

Ken Jacobs, a labor expert at UC Berkeley, said this kind of mixed message is becoming more typical as workers grapple with concession bargaining in a sluggish economy.

"It's not as uncommon as you may think," Jacobs said. "And then they get resolved."

In voting against the Save Mart pact, Jacobs said, workers might have also been expressing anger at the continued erosion in pay and benefits. Grocery workers made concessions in 2003, made modest gains in 2007, and now were being asked for more givebacks. "Part of what you're seeing is some level of pent-up frustration," Jacobs said.

It's no coincidence that Bay Area workers took a harder line than their Central Valley counterparts. The economy is much healthier in the Bay Area, so "the expectations are higher," he said.

Kent Wong, head of the labor research center at UCLA, said health care was a likely sticking point for many workers. For the first time, Save Mart employees would have had to contribute toward their family members' insurance premiums.

The cost: $20 a week for spouses, and $10 to $20 a week per child, depending on the plan.

"It's a big change," Wong said. "Workers have come to rely on, and expect, full family medical care — that's been the tradition in the supermarket industry."

It remained unclear what would happen next in the labor dispute. The UFCW held its annual statewide meeting in Monterey on Thursday, and Wong said the Northern California grocery contracts surely "will be on the agenda."

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