By Mallory Gruben

The Daily News (Longview, Wash.)

A “sizable majority” of members in a regional grocery workers union ratified a contract with Fred Meyer and other stores late Friday night, ending a 16-month period of sometimes tense negotiations, according to union officials.

The three-year contract guarantees employees a minimum 20-hour workweek, provides wage increases for all workers and “aims toward” closing a perceived gender pay gap, said United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 spokeswoman Kelley McAllister.

The union, which represents about 18,000 grocery workers in Oregon and southwest Washington, also didn’t lose any ground in negotiations, she said.

“The whole contract is pretty historic,” McAllister said.

In a prepared statement Saturday, Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffery Temple said the company is “pleased to have reached an agreement that secures increased wages, continued premium health care coverage and pension stability. We thank our hardworking associates for continuing to serve our customers and communities every day.”

The union declined to share how many union members voted “yes” to ratify the contract.

UFCW 555 started negotiating a new contract with Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertsons and QFC more than a year ago, but negotiations stalled due to a wage dispute.

According to union officials, the company was offering “nickels and dimes” compared to requests by union members.

Wages in the Portland area, for example, ranged from near-minimum wage to more than $17 per hour.

The union was particularly upset with Fred Meyer, which union officials accused of unfair labor practices during the negotiations.

The standstill led union members to approve a strike authorization vote in August, and later ask customers to boycott Fred Meyer stores.

The union and the companies reached a tentative agreement about a week after the boycott.

“I have no way of knowing why (the companies) finally moved. I would credit two elements, and one is the boycott,” McAllister said. “The boycott had a nearly instantaneous impact. Our customers were ready and they stood with us.”

McAllister said a federal mediator, who met with the groups the week before the settlement, may have also played a role in the company’s change of heart.

Temple said his company’s “top priority is to do what is best — provide our customers with the freshest products and the friendliest associates.”

Multiple conversations with the union about the terms of the contract reveal an agreement in which wage increases for “apprentice” workers — employees with fewer hours under their belts — are driven almost entirely by Oregon’s increasing minimum wage.

On the other hand, most “journeypeople” — a more senior group of employees — should see negotiated wage increases between $1.65 and $2.80 per hour over the life of the three-year contract, according to the union.

The agreement preserves a structure in which apprentices can earn more the longer they work, with pay based on a formula tied to minimum wage.

For example, one group of workers starts at 10 cents more than minimum wage; another group might get paid 25 cents more, etc.

The union emphasized that, under this contract, apprentices will be paid at the same level above minimum wage as they were before.

That means in dollars and cents, the bulk of their raises will be due to increases mandated by state law. The union said that’s a law it fought for in Salem. McAllister said apprentice workers will also benefit from other areas of the contract. She pointed, for example, to a guarantee of 20 hours of work per week, which she said is the threshold for benefits.

She said guaranteed hours should help apprentices achieve journeyperson ranking more quickly. McAllister said the union also made progress closing the pay gap between a group of male-dominated jobs (such as in grocery, produce and beer, wine and liquor) and a group of female-dominated jobs (such as in the bakery, deli or cheese sections).

She said if future contracts continue in this vein, that pay gap should close in nine years.

Union officials also highlighted the 20-hour work week guarantee, which will make all workers eligible to receive benefits, McAllister said.

The 20-hour work week guarantee may also “snowball for people” because it incentivizes employers to give their current workers more hours instead of hiring new people, McAllister said.

The contract carries a universal three-year term in all contracts and all areas within UFCW 555’s jurisdiction, according to the union. The contract begins the day after any current contract expires. For contracts that expired before this agreement was reached, the new contract will be retroactively applied back to the expiration date.

“We feel like the union negotiations team’s collective position was that all of their needs were met,” McAllister said. “Our long-term fight is to make grocery work a solidly middle class job again. … (With this contract) we took a big step in that direction.”

— Oregon Public Broadcasting contributed to this report.