Orange County grocery store workers will be voting this week to ratify a proposed contract with the big grocery chains, avoiding a potential strike at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions.

The vote comes after a tentative agreement was reached last week between the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, representing thousands of Southern California grocery workers, and the companies.

Workers say the agreement will provide them with better pay, hours, health benefits and improved security at stores – something they have been rallying for in recent negotiations.

Pio Figueroa, a Ralphs food clerk who works in Laguna Beach,  called the contract “historic.”

“We are receiving wage increases that we have never seen in any of our prior contracts,” he said in a Monday interview. 

“We’re seeing better wage progressions so that you don’t have to work endlessly and only receive small wage increases, but you actually start seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” Figueroa said. 

Grocery clerks were hailed as frontline workers over the pandemic, with some cities – like Santa Ana – mandating the grocery chains give their employees hazard pay for working face-to-face with customers during the pandemic. 

At the same time, some employees said the grocery companies weren’t rolling out enough safety measures for the employees – and other workers said they were verbally abused by customers for trying to enforce pandemic precautions, like masks. 

[Read: Grocery Workers Plea for Virus Safety Measures as Clerks Deal With Crowded Stores]

The Albertsons Companies, which includes Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions, confirmed that a tentative agreement had been met, but did not provide further comment.

In an update on contract negotiations last week, Ralphs called the agreement “great news.”

“We’re proud the company and union bargaining committees were able to work together to reach an agreement that rewards all associates with a historical investment, including significant wage increases, affordable industry-leading health care benefits and a more secure pension,” reads the update.

Employees at Ralphs had asked for a $5 increase to their hourly pay over the next three years — a roughly $1.67 per hour raise annually.

Instead, Ralphs had offered $1.80 over three years, an annual 60-cent increase to their hourly pay.

Union officials say employees got their pay increases in the proposed contract. 

Christine Martinez, a Pharmacy Technician at Ralphs in Placentia, said in an interview Monday that workers are excited about the new contract stemming from employees using their collective voices.

“Our members actually came together, they worked really hard for this contract,” she said. “Their voices are finally heard so that’s why we’re really excited. We feel like we’ve got a really good contract, something that actually reflects our hard work.”

Employees have been demanding better wages and safety conditions after the risks they’ve taken for their companies and the communities they’ve served these past few years during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

[Read: Will Orange County’s Grocery Workers Strike? Union Claims Unfair Labor Practices]

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Andrea Zinder, President of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, which represents roughly 23,000 grocery and other retail workers in Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County, said getting the new contract was a tough fight.

“It was one of the most incredible struggles I had ever seen come to fruition,” she said in a Monday interview.

For Figueroa, one of the biggest struggles of working during the pandemic was seeing people getting sick, including families.

“I’ve seen co-workers either get sick, and some of our co-workers even die. That was probably the toughest part of this all,” he said.

During the pandemic, Orange County’s grocery workers have been yelled at, spit on and insulted by customers for enforcing COVID safety protocols like mask mandates at stores, according to numerous interviews with employees over the past two years.

It’s an experience Figueroa and Martinez both say they’ve gone through.

“I was one of those grocery workers who had been chased around my store,” Figueroa said. “I’ve been verbally harassed by customers coming in who weren’t happy with our mask mandates, or weren’t happy with our social distancing policies.”

“I had a customer verbally abuse me and I had to run to the back room.”

The agreement also includes stipulations for an employee-led safety committee to be included at every store to address worker’s safety concerns.

“This would actually hold somebody accountable,” Martinez said about the committee.

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The tentative contract agreement between the union and grocers happened after various branches of the union voted to authorize union leadership to call for a strike if necessary.

[Read: Orange County Grocery Workers Vote to Authorize Strike]

Zinder said the strike authorization vote was the turning point in the negotiations.

“The companies realized how serious they were and how strong and united they were – that they weren’t going to take it anymore, that they were going to fight back if they had to,” she said.

Prior to that, seven branches of the union including Local 324 filed unfair labor practice charges against the four grocery chains for undermining negotiations.

Ralphs pushed back against the claims and says they have negotiated in good faith and in a lawful manner.

Zinder said the tentative agreement up for a vote meets their pay demands.

“We got increases for both our food clerk classification, which is the higher classification, and our general merchandise classification, which is the service delis and bakeries, and the floral department,” she said.

​​A report published earlier this year by Economic Roundtable –  a nonprofit research organization based in Los Angeles – found that over three-fourths of Kroger employees say they are food insecure.

The report, commissioned by branches of UFCW, also found that close to two thirds of workers do not earn enough to pay for basic expenses and 14% of employees are currently homeless or have been in the past year.

“I think it provides an adequate wage increase hopefully to help them make ends meet. We’ve got more hours so together those two produce a higher weekly take home pay. We’re hopeful that it’ll bring some of our members out of those very harsh or horrifying poverty conditions that they’ve been living in,” Zinder said.

Union members in Southern California also voted to ratify a three year contract with Stater Bros, another supermarket chain, this past weekend that they say will increase pay, protect employee pensions and strengthen their healthcare.

The final results on the ratification vote over a contract for Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs are expected on Thursday evening.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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