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    Calif. Grocery Workers Ratify New Contract

    LOS ANGELES - After a two-day vote, 86 percent of Southern California grocery workers who cast ballots approved a contract negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, concluding a five-month strike and lockout that cost millions in lost sales.

    LOS ANGELES - After a two-day vote, 86 percent of Southern California grocery workers who cast ballots approved a contract negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, concluding a five-month strike and lockout that cost millions in lost sales.

    The three-year contract covers 70,000 workers, a majority of them employed by Albertsons Inc.; Kroger Co., which operates Ralphs stores; and Safeway Inc., which operates Vons and Pavilions.

    It requires employees to pay for health benefits for the first time and includes two one-time bonuses for hours already worked. The contract does not include raises.

    In a statement, Ralphs said it plans to recall its associates this week.

    The company maintained that the agreement will allow it to manage its overall costs. "These were complex and difficult negotiations, which required creativity and tough choices on both sides," said John Burgon, Ralphs president. "We are pleased to have a new contract in place that balances our associates' need for competitive wages, health care benefits and pension with our company's need to address the significant economic and competitive threats facing our business. The strike has been difficult for everyone involved -- our associates, our customers and our company. We are pleased that it is finally over and even more pleased to be able to welcome our associates back to work. We look forward to seeing our associates back where they belong-- at work, earning a paycheck and providing superior service to our customers."

    Some employees said the contract was not much different from one they received from their employers in October -- one that was rejected at the time by the union, according to The Associated Press.

    The new contract separates current workers from those hired after Oct. 5, when the old contract expired. New employees would receive a lower wage rate, and it would take them longer to get raises, according to a union fact sheet given to workers.

    The new contract also relegates new hires to a separate, "basic" health plan, according to the AP. Current employees won't have to pay premiums in the first two years of the contract, but they could end up having to pay $5 a week for individual coverage or up to $15 a week for family coverage in the third year of the deal.

    Under their previous contract, workers paid no premiums for health benefits and a $10 copay for doctor's visits and prescriptions.

    Union leaders ordered a strike against Vons and Pavilions chains on Oct. 11. Albertsons and Ralphs then locked out their employees. In all, about 59,000 workers were idled. Others continued working at other markets through a special agreement.

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