SAN FRANCISCO — Unable to rally support for a strike, the union representing 27,000 workers at Northern California’s two largest grocery chains on Friday reluctantly accepted a contract that labor leaders described as a setback for employees struggling to afford the region’s high housing costs.
The change of heart by the United Food and Commercial Workers union ends weeks of bickering between the management and workers at 294 Northern California supermarkets run by market leaders Safeway and Albertson’s. The chains, which had been negotiating as a team, characterized the contract proposal as their “last, best” offer.
The contract will raise workers’ wages by an average of 10 percent, or $1.50 per hour, over three years. The union wanted raises of $2.40 per hour over three years. The initial raise of 50 cents per hour is retroactive to July 1.
The contract is expected to set the standard for thousands of other clerks at rival supermarkets in Northern California. The workers at Safeway and Albertson’s stores in the Sacramento area accepted a nearly identical contract in July.
Less than three weeks ago, the union recommended that the San Francisco Bay area workers reject the contract and prepare to strike.
More than 61 percent of the workers voted against the contract in results announced earlier this week. But union rules prohibit a strike unless at least 66.7 percent of workers reject a contract. Labor leaders said Friday the strike would have been authorized with overwhelming customer support if not for the anxieties raised by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The contract is “not fair and not adequate,” but labor leaders felt they had no negotiating leverage without the power to strike, said Ron Lind, a spokesman for the UFCW.
“The reality is that a strike is our only weapon,” Lind said. “If you don’t have that, there isn’t much you can do.”
Pleasanton-based Safeway and Boise, Idaho-based Albertson’s had little to say about the labor agreement. “We look forward to continuing to serve our customers,” the chains said in a statement.
During a press conference with labor leaders Friday, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown applauded the workers for not “disrupting the food supply systems” so soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It is not the time to militantly pursue their legitimate and justifiable claims,” Brown said.
Labor leaders said employees need more money to live in the San Francisco Bay area, where the cost of a mid-priced home increased 66 percent to $476,000 since the workers signed their previous contract in 1997. Accepting the new contract means the store workers will have to live in less expensive outlying areas and drive even farther to their jobs, Lind said.
The current pay for the Northern California retail clerks ranges from $7.75 per hour to $17.58 per hour, making them among the best paid in their profession, according to management. Less than two-thirds of the store workers log 40-hour weeks, according to union officials.
Accepting the 10 percent raise represented a “great sacrifice” by the store workers, said Walter Johnson, secretary treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council of the AFL-CIO.
“I want to thank them for having the courage to do that,” Johnson said.
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