Southern Calif. Grocery Workers Ratify Contract

supermarket workers in California signed a deal(Reuters) - Unionized Southern California supermarket employees at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons ratified a contract deal reached last week that averted a threatened strike, said the union representing the workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that members voted on Friday and Saturday to approve the three-year agreement reached on Monday covering 62,000 grocery workers. It did not release the vote count.

"This package protects our members` access to affordable comprehensive health care for themselves and their families," the union said in a statement late on Saturday. The union has said the agreement increases wages and protects healthcare and pension benefits through the life of the contract.

Southern California is one of the most competitive food retailing markets in the United States. Many analyst see the region as a trend-setter for the rest of the industry.

Parties to the latest talks were involved in a bitter 141-day strike in Southern California that spanned 2003 and 2004. It was the longest work stoppage in the history of the U.S. grocery industry, costing an estimated $1.5 billion in lost sales to competitors and permanently shifting the loyalties of some shoppers.

Since that time, nonunion food sellers ranging from Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Costco Wholesale Corp and Target Corp have been chipping away at their overall market share. At the same time, niche players, ranging from upscale grocer Whole Foods Market Inc to ethnic chains and even dollar stores, have taken a bite.

Ralphs stores are operated by Kroger Co, Vons is owned by Safeway Inc and Albertsons' parent company is Supervalu Inc.

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