ACHIEVING MIDDLE GROUND

Supermarket operators looking to rein in costs and compete with nonunion retailers turned to organized labor for help this year.Negotiations nationwide echoed chains' worries about how wage hikes, increased medical and pension benefits, and work rules may squeeze their ability to battle supercenters, alternative formats and nonunion food retailers.Company executives and union representatives locked

Supermarket operators looking to rein in costs and compete with nonunion retailers turned to organized labor for help this year.

Negotiations nationwide echoed chains' worries about how wage hikes, increased medical and pension benefits, and work rules may squeeze their ability to battle supercenters, alternative formats and nonunion food retailers.

Company executives and union representatives locked horns in some cases, but eventually reached a compromise after work stoppages mired business or mediators recommended solutions. Other chains and union locals resolved differences with little fuss before or soon after, existing pacts expired.

One chain entangled in labor disputes was Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif. In the spring, Safeway and Giant Food, Landover, Md., inked a bargaining agreement affecting 18,000 workers in the Washington-Baltimore area.

A few weeks later, Safeway signed a new pact with 700 Teamster employees at its East Coast distribution facility. The new pact called for scheduling and job assignment changes, no wage concessions and was expected to save Safeway $7 million. Had the savings not been realized, Safeway planned to contract a third-party distributor to service its 124 Mid-Atlantic stores.

About the same time, labor disputes surfaced in the Denver and Vancouver, British Columbia, with strikes and lockouts ensuing in each city. The Denver situation involved 78 Safeway stores, 62 King Soopers (a division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati) and 14,000 grocery workers. A strike/lockout lasted six weeks, and two picketers were killed in an auto accident before an agreement was struck at the end of June.

In Vancouver, 86 Safeway stores operated by the chain's Canada Safeway subsidiary in Calgary, Alberta, plus 49 stores of Overwaitea Food Group, Langley, British Columbia, shut down in a monthlong strike/lockout. The stores had to close because Canadian laws prohibit retailers from hiring replacement workers. Members of two United Food and Commercial Workers locals ratified a contract in July after several mediation sessions.

Another operator that hit a few snags with employees was Albertson's, Boise, Idaho. Employees filed several lawsuits against the company, claiming that Albertson's used its employees to do off-the-clock work and did not pay them for those hours. Class-action suits are pending in Washington, California and Florida.

P&C Food Markets, part of Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y., inked a five-year pact with Teamsters Local 317 in February. The union agreed to wage concessions as long as the chain would not seek an outside contractor to operate two distribution centers. In September, Penn Traffic and U.S. Steelworkers Local 12755 signed a five-year contract, ending a seven-week strike at the company's dairy processing division, Sani-Dairy.

Kroger and Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, signed accords affecting 4,200 employees and 42 stores in July. The pact called for wage hikes and better-managed health-care programs. About 8,000 retail clerks and meatcutters at 120 A&P stores in New Jersey and New York reached an agreement with the Montvale, N.J-based operator in the summer. The retailer also is negotiating a new contract with UFCW locals in Ontario. The contract covering 6,500 workers at A&P's Miracle Food Marts expired Nov. 17.

In October, the Akron-Canton Food Industry Committee and the Cleveland Food Industry Committee -- umbrella groups including operators such as Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio; Finast, Maple Heights, Ohio; Fisher Foods, North Canton, Ohio; Acme, Akron, Ohio; and Country Counter, Richfield, Ohio -- signed a collective bargaining agreement covering 15,500 employees in 150 stores.

Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., reached an agreement with UFCW Locals 881 and 1540 in November. The contract affects 9,300 retail clerks.

Giant Food returned to the bargaining table in the last part of the year to hammer out a pact with the Teamsters. The contract, which expires Dec. 14, covers 300 truck drivers.