Three big grocery-store chains reached a tentative union contract with 8,900 employees in Northern California, likely averting a strike and lockout. The peaceful climax to contract...

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Three big grocery-store chains reached a tentative union contract with 8,900 employees in Northern California, likely averting a strike and lockout.

The peaceful climax to contract talks — a contrast to the stalemate that kept more than 50,000 grocery workers off their jobs in Southern and Central California for 4-1/2 months last fall and winter — could provide a blueprint for ending negotiations that are continuing between stores and about 30,000 union members in the San Francisco area.

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The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Local 588 in Northern California said the proposed contract reached late Sunday with Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger’s Ralphs chain doesn’t include a “two-tier” wage and benefits system.

Under a two-tier system like the one in the contract that finally ended the Southern and Central California dispute, new hires are paid less and receive fewer benefits than employees who started working under earlier contracts.

Union officials in Southern California fiercely opposed the two-tier idea, but the supermarkets prevailed when 59,000 union members ratified the new contract. The supermarkets insisted that they had to slash their operating costs to compete with nonunion, lower-cost discount chains that are expanding in the grocery business.

Still, the chains paid dearly, suffering more than $1.5 billion in lost sales during the strike and lockout. And they’ve said that the ongoing costs of luring back pre-strike customers are continuing to hurt their profits. That probably influenced the chains’ willingness to agree to a Northern California contract without the two-tier program, union officials and industry analysts said.

Safeway said it was “pleased” with the tentative contract in Northern California but didn’t elaborate. Albertsons declined to comment and Ralphs didn’t return calls seeking comment.

The UFCW made some concessions in Northern California, such as stretching out the time it would take for new hires to reach top scales in wages and benefits, said UFCW Local 588 President Jack Loveall.

Loveall said that, in addition to not having the two-tier setup, the proposed pacts include wage increases and wouldn’t require that workers pay any premiums for health insurance. New hires would start with a less-generous health-care plan, but could eventually work their way up to the plan enjoyed by veteran employees, he added.

Workers are expected to vote on the three-year pacts by mail later this month.