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Contract Vote Pending But Challenges Remain For Supermarkets

Bruce A Stockwell

Sixty-two thousand Southern California grocery workers will soon decide whether they'll support the tentative contract deal reached by negotiators Monday. However, the supermarket chains will still have to deal with issues.

The tentative agreement means Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons customers won't have to worry if their neighborhood stores are going to be open or full of replacement workers.

That's a huge relief for 40-year-old Angela Baker. The single mom has worked for six years at a Vons store in Camarillo. Baker was prepared for a strike, but she was relieved a deal was reached. She was especially glad to hear the union protected her health care benefits, because she wants her four year old son to get the same kind of care she got.


"I grew up having the same doctor from the time I was an infant until the time I was an adult - until he retired. And I want that for my child," said Baker.

Union leaders are keeping quiet about details of the contract until members vote on Friday, but United Food and Commercial Workers officials said health care and pensions were protected.

George Whalin, a retail consultant who tracks the grocery industry, called this a tough environment for the region's the big supermarket chains because they are facing increasing competition from Walmart, Target and other non-union stores.

"If you start slicing the marketplace up to where it's too small, you've got to have fewer stores," said Whalin. "And the strength of the major supermarket chains has always been being close to the neighborhoods, and being close to where the consumers shop. There may come a time when they can't afford to operate as many stores as they do."

The competition has squeezed the grocery marketplace so much that the stable, high-paying jobs the industry used to be known for are going away, according to Whalin.