Unions announce new contracts

Three unions recently announced settlements of major contracts. One has national, another regional, and the third local significance. One was settled after workers voted to authorize a strike, another after a two-week strike, and the third after the union agreed not to strike.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) on September 19 announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with three grocery chains in Southern California that employe 62,000 union members. UFCW and Vons, owned by Safeway, Ralphs, owned by Kroger, and Albertsons, owned by Supervalu, reached an agreement after eight months of fruitless negotiations.

Progress toward a settlement began over the weekend after union members voted to authorize a strike, and the union announced that it was canceling the current contract and would strike after 72 hours. A strike in 2003 cost the grocery chains $2 billion.

Most of the workers at these stores are part-timers, but unlike most part-timers, they have an affordable, comprehensive health care plan. The stores’ corporate owners wanted to reduce this benefit, but the union said that the new contract protects it. “We have attained our most important goal, which was continuing to provide comprehensive health care to the members and their families,” said union negotiators in a statement.

The agreement, which still needs member ratification, will serve as a pattern for other retail grocery contracts that cover 28,000 workers in Southern California.

The United Autoworkers on September 16 announced that it reached a tentative agreement with GM. The union did not release details of the four-year pact that still needs member ratification, but did say that the deal protects health care and pension benefits that GM sought to reduce and that as a result of the agreement, the company will bring back some work it shipped abroad and reopen an assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The union, which agreed not to strike so that GM could receive federal assistance in 2009, sought to reclaim some of the concessions that it agreed to in 2005 and again in 2009 when GM was facing bankruptcy. Joe Ashton, vice-president for UAW’s GM department, said that the concessions, which cost each worker between $7,000 and $30,000, helped GM survive the bankruptcy and that GM’s workers played a key role in the company’s return to profitability and should be rewarded for that effort.

The contract makes some progress toward that goal. Workers will receive a $5,000 signing bonus and a better, more transparent profit-sharing bonus.

The union, however, fell short on one goal, which was to make substantial progress toward getting new-hire wages closer to the middle-class wages enjoyed by veteran workers. Currently, new hires make $14 an hour and max out at 16. Bloomberg.com reports that over the next four years, new hire wages will increase to $16 an hour and max out at $19.

Bob King, UAW president said that as long as so many autoworkers remain un-unionized, it will exert downward pressure on all wage settlements. “The pathway to rebuilding America’s middle class and creating long-term job security for all American autoworkers must include organizing workers at the foreign-owned automakers operating without unions in the United States,” King said  “We stand recommitted to that goal today.”

The new pact will serve as a pattern for new contracts being negotiated with Ford and Chrysler.

Meanwhile, American Federation of Teachers Local 1776  announced that 711 teachers who work at 17 Catholic  Philadelphia-area high schools on September 19 voted for a new contract that ends a two-week strike. Job security was a main concern that caused the strike. The new agreement allows school administrators to hire part-time teachers but not for the purpose of replacing full-time teachers.

Catholic Archdiocese also wanted to discipline teachers based on anonymous complaints and make teachers pay more for their health care benefit. The new contract protects teachers from disciplinary actions based anonymous complaints and freezes teacher health care contributions for the first year of the three-year contract. Contributions will increase in the second year, but the contribution is capped at 11.9 percent. No cap is in place for the third year of the contract, and if premiums rise above 10 percent, changes to the plan could result.

“Our teachers stood strong and solid on the picket lines to defend their jobs, and we are so grateful,” said Rita Schwartz, president of Local 1776. “The negotiation team could not have gotten this agreement if it were not for the commitment and support of our teachers.”

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