In a bittersweet move, union employees at two area Express Scripts facilities on Friday overwhelmingly approved a contract that would save jobs for 400 but give up the fight to save 500 other jobs.

"It feels like a hard-earned coin," said chief union negotiator Stephanie Haynes, vice president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania.

Express Scripts Inc., the St. Louis-based mail-order pharmacy, told employees Dec. 1 that since contract bargaining had failed, it would shut down its plant on Street Road in Bensalem. It already had informed the union that its Marshall Lane plant, also in Bensalem, would shut on Dec. 16.

After the Street Road announcement, both sides returned to the bargaining table and were able to patch together an agreement.

Under the new contract, the Street Road plant will remain open for two years, while Marshall Lane will be phased out over several months, with most workers losing their jobs next week. Job losses include 350 at Marshall Lane and as many as 150 at Street Road.

Haynes said the union, which previously made $8 million in concessions with pay freezes and changes to pensions and disability insurance, agreed in the latest talks to drop an unfair-labor-practices complaint against Express Scripts filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

That agreement essentially ends the union's fight to keep the Marshall Lane plant open.

"We were able to get the workers a good severance package," said Haynes. Workers will get six months of paid health care, a lump sum payout, plus a week's pay for every year on the job.

The company had said earlier that it did not want to close the plant, but felt compelled to do so because labor costs were higher at the Bensalem plants than at its other 12 facilities nationwide.

"We believe the contract the union is voting on preserves our economic model" of bringing labor costs in Bensalem closer to those in its other facilities, company spokesman Larry Zarin said. "That was always our goal."

Express Scripts, which has 14,000 employees, reported a 2009 profit of $827.6 million on revenue of $24.7 billion. It bought the two Bensalem plants in 1998. Together they employ 1,000, including nonunion managers.

The union mounted a tough battle.

Many Express Scripts customers are union health and welfare plans, and their administrators wrote letters threatening to move their business. Local members of Congress called for investigations into whether the company would have sufficient capacity to process orders for its clients, including the military, without Bensalem.

The company said it had capacity because it expanded its plant in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, the unfair-labor complaint filed in Philadelphia about Marshall Lane had gained traction. Local NLRB officials had agreed that Express Scripts bargained unfairly over closing the plant, sending the complaint on to a higher level at the agency for more consideration.

The decision would have required the company to return to the bargaining table to negotiate the Marshall Lane closure while the union continued to pursue an injunction.

"We might have been able to keep Marshall open for six months, and then we still would have had to negotiate a severance settlement," Haynes said.