LOS ANGELES (AP) – Southern California grocery workers voted overwhelmingly to approve a new contract with supermarket operators, ending a strike that inconvenienced millions of customers and cost three major grocery chains hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.

After a two-day vote, 86 percent of grocery workers who cast ballots approved the contract negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the union said Sunday in a statement.

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 offers no raises.

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.

Many employees who said they voted to ratify the contract said they were eager to return to their jobs. Some said the offer was not much different from one they received from their employers in October – one that was rejected 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 going back to work.

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 by special agreement while the contract was negotiated.

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.

It’s expected to take several days for the grocery clerks to return to their jobs, said Barbara Maynard, a United Food and Commercial Workers spokeswoman.

“It simply takes time to schedule everyone,” she said. “Some people may or may not go back.”

It was unknown whether replacement workers would be immediately released.

After months of intermittent negotiations, the companies and the union agreed upon the terms of the contract during a 16-day stretch of talks that culminated on Thursday. Both sides had been deadlocked over the cost and scope of health benefits and a two-tier wage and benefit system sought by the companies.

AP-ES-02-29-04 2319EST

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