SAN JOSE, Calif. — After five months of arduous contract negotiations with grocery giants Safeway, Albertson’s and Kroger, the Bay Area Coalition of eight United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals announced a tentative settlement Jan. 24. The settlement followed 15 days of marathon bargaining, and came less than 24 hours before a union-imposed deadline. Workers will vote on the proposed pact in the next three weeks, the Coalition said.

Together with the Sacramento local, “the eight locals have succeeded in maintaining the status of northern California as having the best grocery workers’ contract in the nation,” Ron Lind, president of UFCW Local 428 and head of the bargaining committee, told a press conference at the local’s headquarters here.

“Our members and their families will continue to have quality affordable health care without sharing premium costs, and the program will continue to be administered jointly by the union and the employers,” he said.

The Bay Area Coalition represents the country’s second largest UFCW bargaining unit. The proposed contract covers some 20,000 workers and will influence contract talks for another 10,000 workers at independent grocers.

Equally important, Lind said, the contract continues to protect members’ job security against an employer demand that outside vendors be allowed unlimited leeway to stock shelves.

“Bay Area grocery workers owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the 70,000 UFCW members who paved the way for this settlement with their four-and-a-half month strike in southern California last year,” Lind said. “Their incredible courage and sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

Lind also thanked the 85,000 northern California customers who signed cards pledging their support, as well as the California Labor Federation, the Teamsters and other unions throughout the Bay Area.

“Clearly, in light of the current bargaining climate, we made compromises we would have preferred not to make,” Lind said. Some health care co-pays will be higher, while retirees, who have paid no premiums, will now pay $70 per month for themselves and their spouses. Calling the escalating cost of health care “a national question” that hangs like a cloud over all bargaining talks, he urged the three grocery giants to work with the union for meaningful health care reform.

Though new hires will start with lower benefits and it will take longer for them to reach top pay and benefits, Lind said the coalition avoided a permanent two-tier structure.

While recognizing that the union had to make compromises, Local 428 members Laurie Piazza – a Safeway employee – and Elise Blazek, who works at Albertson’s, expressed support for the contract.

Piazza, a 20-year veteran, said avoiding a two-tier set-up was good for established workers as well as newcomers. “With a two-tier structure, the stores wouldn’t want people like me – we would cost them more” than new hires, she said. “I know what’s out there concerning health care,” she added. “This is better than what the companies were proposing.”

Blazek called the very modest 25 cents an hour wage-and-bonus increase “an unhappy choice” but necessary to keep health coverage.