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The Los Angeles Times reports that "negotiators for the big grocery chains and store clerks have reached a tentative agreement on the thorny issue of health benefits, making it increasingly likely that Southland shoppers won't endure a strike this summer."

Details of the tentative accord have not been released, however, and both sides are being guarded in their public rhetoric.

According to the Times, "Negotiators have agreed on a plan to improve health insurance for the 33,000 'second-tier' workers who were hired after the 2004 accord and get reduced wages and benefits. Some believe a deal will be concluded before July 4." The Times also writes that the two sides "have agreed in principle to reduce the time it takes new employees to qualify for insurance coverage to six months.

"Under the existing pact, new workers must wait either one year or 18 months, depending on the job. Children of employees also would be covered in six months under the new accord instead of 30 months, and the waiting period for spouses would fall to 24 months from 30 months. The sticking point now is a disagreement over the size of the reserve the plan needs in case expenses are higher than forecast or a greater-than-expected number of workers sign up for the insurance, according to people with knowledge of the talks."

The final big hurdle in the talks, according to reports, is wages, with both sides saying that an increase is inevitable, but with labor and management far apart on how big that wage hike should be.

The existing pact expired last March, but has been extended while both sides continue negotiations.
KC's View:
What is not clear from the Times story, and what we may not know until a pact is signed and all the details are out, is how much of the Southern California labor deal reflects Safeway CEO Steve Burd's vision of a new approach to health care, with workers taking on a greater responsibility for their own personal health as a way of not just cutting costs, but creating a more efficient and effective system.

Burd has been saying that Safeway's long-term success depends on getting unionized workers to buy into his vision. We tend to agree, and are anxious to see how close the Southern California agreement comes.