After a two-day vote, 86 percent of grocery workers who cast ballots approved a three-year contract negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, concluding their five-month strike and lockout.
The contract covers 70,000 workers, a majority of them employed by Albertsons Inc.; Kroger Co., which operates Ralphs stores; and Safeway Inc., which operates Vons and Pavilions.
It requires employees to pay for health benefits for the first time and includes two one-time bonuses for hours already worked. The contract does not include raises.
It's expected to take several days for the grocery clerks to return to their jobs, said Barbara Maynard, a union spokeswoman. "It simply takes time to schedule everyone," she said Sunday. "Some people may or may not go back."
It was not yet known whether replacement workers would be immediately released.
Many employees who said they voted to ratify the contract said they were eager to return to their jobs. Some said the contract was not much different from one they received from their employers in October - one that was rejected at the time by the union.
Sunny Kim, 32, a service manager at Ralphs, said she was disappointed with the final results, even though she hadn't seen the contract. "Why did we go on strike? I lost a lot of money for nothing. I think the guys were misled," Kim said.
Still, she said she felt "wonderful" about the opportunity to go back to work.
That feeling was shared by Letecia Sartain, 36, a Ralphs cashier, who said the contract looked "pretty good." She expects to answer a lot of questions from customers about the strike in the coming weeks.
"It's going to be kind of weird going back after almost five months of being out," she added.
The new contract separates current workers from those hired after Oct. 5, when the old contract expired. New employees would receive a lower wage rate, and it would take them longer to get raises, according to a union fact sheet given to workers.
The new contract also relegates new hires to a separate, "basic" health plan. Current employees won't have to pay premiums in the first two years of the contract, but they could end up having to pay $5 a week for individual coverage or up to $15 a week for family coverage in the third year of the deal.
Under their previous contract, workers paid no premiums for health benefits and a $10 co-pay for doctor's visits and prescriptions.
Union leaders ordered a strike against Vons and Pavilions chains on Oct. 11. Albertsons and Ralphs then locked out their employees. In all, about 59,000 workers were idled. Others continued working at other markets through a special agreement.
The 4½-month dispute gained national attention because it was seen as a referendum on affordable employee health care. Presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards were among those who rallied behind the grocery workers.
Union leaders said they wanted to protect affordable health care, pensions and job security. "These three goals were accomplished in the new agreement, indicating the workers' struggle and sacrifice were worthwhile," the statement read.
Calls to Albertsons and Safeway officials were not immediately returned Sunday night.
In a statement, Ralphs president John Burgon said of the strike: "We are pleased that it is finally over and even more pleased to be able to welcome our associates back to work."
By Alex Veiga