UFCW RETURNS TO BARGAINING

LOS ANGELES -- It was back to the bargaining table here last week as the Southern California strike-lockout closed in on its ninth week, making it one of the longest labor disputes in the history of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, stepped into the dispute last week, issuing subpoenas to the three companies involved in the dispute -- Safeway,

LOS ANGELES -- It was back to the bargaining table here last week as the Southern California strike-lockout closed in on its ninth week, making it one of the longest labor disputes in the history of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, stepped into the dispute last week, issuing subpoenas to the three companies involved in the dispute -- Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., parent company of Vons; Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; and Kroger Co., Cincinnati, parent of Ralphs -- asking them to produce documents dealing with mutual revenue-sharing agreements "to determine whether the stores ... are playing fair and within the rules set by state and federal law."

Meanwhile, UFCW members continued to picket chain warehouses in Southern California, idling 9,000 Teamsters and forcing the chains to hire temporary drivers and warehouse workers.

Officials at Albertsons and Vons said their companies were ready with contingency plans for temporary help when the clerk strike moved to their warehouses, with both chains fully stocked and not experiencing any shortages. Ralphs officials were not available for comment.

It was against that backdrop that representatives for seven UFCW locals resumed meetings last Tuesday with negotiators for the three chains -- the third round of talks under the aegis of federal mediator Peter J. Hurtgen since the union struck Vons Oct. 11 and was locked out by the other two operators a day later.

Pickets were removed from Ralphs stores on Oct. 31; however, in mid-November the UFCW dispatched informational pickets to Safeway stores in Northern California and the Washington, D.C., area.

Lockyer's office issued subpoenas last week asking the chains to produce the revenue-sharing agreement and any other cooperative agreements they may have entered into, plus related communications such as e-mails. The subpoenas were issued after the grocers failed to respond voluntarily to a request to produce the documents a week earlier, the AG's office said.

According to Lockyer, the mutual-aid agreement allegedly requires Kroger to share with the other two chains any windfall reaped by the absence of picket lines at Ralphs stores. "If such an agreement unduly restrains competition and keeps prices artificially high, it could run afoul of antitrust laws" at the state and federal levels, as well as California laws prohibiting unfair business practices, the AG said in a press statement.

"The parent companies of the stores in this dispute combine for more than $100 billion in annual sales," Lockyer said. "But sales figures do not measure a company's true worth or the quality of the life a family lives now and in the future. Those are the interests these striking workers have at stake as they struggle to meet their families' basic needs."

Stacia Levenfeld, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, reiterated previous comments to SN last week that the revenue-sharing agreement among the chains was not unusual and was completely lawful under state and federal laws. She said Albertsons had received a letter from the attorney general seeking information, "and we're looking into that request."

Brian Dowling, a Safeway spokesman, said the agreement exists, "and these kinds of agreements are common in this industry and others, and they are perfectly legal." He said he declined to quantify the impact the informational pickets were having at Safeway stores in Northern California, Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland.

UFCW officials told SN the union's longest labor dispute with the industry occurred in Seattle in the mid-1970s, though spokesman Greg Denier was unable to pinpoint the length. But at 53 days and counting at mid-week last week, Denier acknowledged the Southern California dispute is probably the second longest in union history.

Ellen Anreder, a Southern California spokeswoman for the UFCW, said the strike-lockout is certainly one of the largest disputes in the history of the industry in terms of numbers of people and stores involved, as well as geography, noting that the dispute has affected 70,000 UFCW members working at more than 850 stores, plus 9,000 Teamsters, spread over a geography stretching from the Mexican border north to San Luis Obispo and east to the Arizona and Nevada borders.