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ST. CHARLES • Schnucks’ cashiers, baggers and other employees voted overwhelmingly to approve a three-year contract Wednesday night, ending a months-long battle over health insurance and wages that put St. Louis’ largest independent grocery chain on the brink of a strike.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655 who are employed by Schnuck Markets Inc. voted 1,020-507 to approve the contract, or 67 percent of the total votes cast.

One month ago, 89 percent of employees assembled at the same auditorium at the Family Arena in St. Charles voted to reject an earlier version of the proposed contract, sending negotiators back to the bargaining table. The last contract expired May 8.

The union’s president, David Cook, called the changes to pensions, wages, insurance and work rules “substantially improved” but conceded the union didn’t get everything it wanted. “Is this everything I wish it was? Absolutely not,” he told those assembled before they cast their votes.

However, he recommended that employees approve the contract to avoid a strike that could’ve started on Halloween. If at least two-thirds of voters had rejected the contract Wednesday night, the union would have immediately given Schnucks the contractually required five days notice before a strike commenced, he said. “It would be in my opinion the worst decision we could make,” he said.

Cook credited Scot Beckenbaugh, a federal mediator brought in this month to help negotiate, with bringing the sides together. Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, helped end the National Hockey League lockout in 2013.

Local 655 represents about 4,000 employees who work at 52 St. Louis-area stores in Missouri, and it’s the Maryland Heights-based chain’s largest union.

Companywide, privately held Schnucks has 99 stores in five states and $2.7 billion in annual revenue.

Improvements to benefits related to health care coverage swayed many union members to approve the contract, employees said.

In Schnucks’ previous proposal, which the union had recommended employees reject, 600 part-time employees would have lost health insurance coverage, in addition to about 200 of their family members. Under the new contract, any employee or family member who currently has health insurance retains it.

“The biggest difference in this contract is health care,” said Rebecca Garrett, 34, of Florissant, a pharmacy technician at the Cross Keys Schnucks store who is on the contract bargaining committee.

“Losing health care for part-timers would have cut approximately 600 to 800 people off of health care,” she said. Additionally, part-time employees will get three weeks of vacation, instead of two weeks.

Some employees who were upset about paying more for their health care coverage still voted to approve the contract.

“I don’t think it’s good,” Sam Williamson, 23, a center store clerk at the Richmond Heights store, said of the contract. “I voted for it because I don’t think they’re going to offer anything better.”

The creation of a two-tier pension that was added in the proposed Sept. 26 contract was scrapped. Adding an additional week during the year that employees were barred from taking vacation, an increase from the existing three weeks, was also nixed.

Several job classifications will see raises. All full-time employees will get a $600 bonus, and part-time employees will get a $300 bonus, amounts that did not change from the prior proposal. Pharmacy technicians, who had no language in the prior proposed contract addressing their jobs, get a new higher starting rate and reimbursements for costs associated with obtaining licensing and certifications.

Schnucks released a statement applauding the vote and the help of the federal mediator. “This is an important contract as we face increasing pressures from nearly 600 nonunion stores,” the company said. “Together we found solutions that support teammates while giving Schnucks the flexibility to compete.”

The approved contract by Schnucks’ employees also means passage of contracts for two other local grocery chains, Dierbergs and Shop ’n Save, may be on the horizon. Local 655 also represents about 4,000 employees at Dierbergs and Shop ’n Save, and those chains’ union representatives have agreed to follow the same economic package as Schnucks. Only a few chain-specific items such as lunch breaks still need to be finalized before Dierbergs and Shop ’n Save vote on their respective contracts, according to Local 655 spokesman Collin Reischman. “We could have a proposal for our members as early as next week,” Reischman said.

The last time there was a local grocery strike was 2003, affecting 10,000 employees and disrupting operations at 97 Shop ’n Save, Dierbergs and Schnucks stores in Missouri.

A similar strike now would have decimated locally based grocers, Cook said. More discount grocery competitors that pay low wages have expanded their offerings in recent years.

“After the strike last time, shoppers returned, but with all the other competitors out there now, they wouldn’t have returned,” Cook said.