Grocery workers have approved a contract with some of the region’s biggest supermarkets after months of contentious negotiations, a short-lived boycott against Fred Meyer and the threat of a strike.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 announced the ratification late Friday.

The union represents about 20,000 grocery workers in Oregon and southwest Washington. Wages were the dominant issue during negotiations with Fred Meyer, QFC, Albertsons and Safeway.

The union insisted workers weren’t paid enough to thrive in the current economy.

Wages in the Portland area, for example, ranged from near-minimum wage to more than $17 per hour. 

Negotiations ended with the help of a federal mediator.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement that secures increased wages, continued premium health care coverage and pension stability,” said a Fred Meyer spokesman in a statement.

Multiple conversations with the union about the terms of the contract reveal an agreement in which wage increases for “apprentice” workers — employees with fewer hours under their belts — are driven almost entirely by Oregon’s increasing minimum wage.

On the other hand, most “journeypeople” — a more senior group of employees — should see negotiated wage increases between $1.65 and $2.80 per hour over the life of the three-year contract, according to the union.

The agreement preserves a structure in which apprentices can earn more the longer they work, with pay based on a formula tied to minimum wage.

For example, one group of workers starts at 10 cents more than minimum wage; another group might get paid 25 cents more, etc.

The union emphasized that, under this contract, apprentices will be paid at the same level above minimum wage as they were before.

That means in dollars and cents, the bulk of their raises will be due to increases mandated by state law. The union said that’s a law it fought for in Salem. Kelley McAllister, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 555, said apprentice workers will also benefit from other areas of the contract. She pointed, for example, to a guarantee of 20 hours of work per week, which she said is the threshold for benefits.

She said guaranteed hours should help apprentices achieve journeyperson ranking more quickly. McAllister said the union also made progress closing the pay gap between a group of male-dominated jobs (such as in grocery, produce and beer, wine and liquor) and a group of female-dominated jobs (such as in the bakery, deli or cheese sections).

She said if future contracts continue in this vein, that pay gap should close in nine years.