Nicole Powers stepped outside of the crowded convention center hall, hugged a friend, and shouted, "Whew!"
It was part exhilaration, part relief. After nearly four weeks without income and hours walking the picket lines, Powers was going back to work.
So were another 10,000 or so St. Louis-area union supermarket employees after voting overwhelmingly Friday to end a strike and lockout that began Oct. 7. The contract settlement, reached Wednesday with the help of a federal mediator, was approved 4,174 to 945, with an 81 percent majority in a vote at the America's Center convention center. A simple majority was needed for passage.
"The scabs are gone," Powers, 34, a baker at the Shop 'n Save store in Kirkwood. "I miss working. I'm one of those people that love to work."
The strike affected the three largest supermarket chains in St. Louis -- 97 Schnuck Markets Inc., Dierbergs Market Inc. and Shop 'n Save Warehouse Foods Inc. stores on the Missouri side of the region. The stores hired 9,000 replacement workers during the strike.
The settlement was also a relief to the 24 employees of the Cape Girardeau Schnucks store -- including almost all of the store's managers and assistant managers -- who had been in St. Louis lending a hand.
Store manager Dennis Marchi said many of the employees returned home Friday after their shifts. The rest who worked later shifts will return home today.
"Everybody's going back to work at the Cape store on Monday," Marchi said. "Everybody's ready to get home. It's been a trip."
United Food & Commercial Workers Local 655 president Bob Kelley said the strike cost the stores millions of dollars, but was a hardship for workers and the public, too. "In a strike, no one really wins," he said.
The core issue was health-care benefits. Store workers have never had to pay a deductible. The original contract called for a $200 deductible for individuals, $400 for families.
The new 47-month contract drops the deductible. It also caps prescription drug costs, another change from the original. Other improvements for the union: workers will get a ratification bonus of 45 cents for every hour worked over the previous year, up from 20 cents; and baggers will get a raise of a dime an hour instead of a nickel an hour.
The contract also calls for workers earning $9 an hour or more to get 25-cent-per-hour raises in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Business editor Scott Moyers contributed to this report.