UNION, RETAILERS GO TO MEDIATION

LOS ANGELES -- The Southern California food industry appeared headed for a strike and lockout over the weekend, although there was some hope for a delay in any labor action as both sides agreed to meet with a federal mediator.Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770, the largest of seven locals involved in the negotiations, voted last Wednesday to reject the employers' offer and

LOS ANGELES -- The Southern California food industry appeared headed for a strike and lockout over the weekend, although there was some hope for a delay in any labor action as both sides agreed to meet with a federal mediator.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770, the largest of seven locals involved in the negotiations, voted last Wednesday to reject the employers' offer and authorize a strike by a 98% vote, and voting later in the week by the six other locals, which are negotiating as a single bargaining unit, was expected to produce similar results.

"When we meet with the federal mediator, we hope the employers realize how much passion the members feel and will be more reasonable in their offer, but we're not hopeful," Ellen Anreder, a spokeswoman for the union, told SN. "If they show some glimmer of hope of being reasonable, we are willing to talk through the night if we have to because we don't want a strike."

Two months of negotiations ended shortly before the five-year contract expired at midnight Oct. 5, with the union opting to urge their 70,000 members to reject the employer proposal that was on the table at that time and to authorize a strike. Any labor action would involve the three major chains here -- Albertsons, Kroger-owned Ralphs Supermarkets, and Safeway-owned Vons Co. -- at more than 850 stores from the Mexican border north to San Luis Obispo and east to the Arizona and Nevada borders.

In the past the unions have selected one strike target, with other chains involved in the negotiations locking their employees out. Anreder declined to indicate if that would be the pattern this time. "We've never looked at a proposal like this before, so it's hard to use history as a guide," she said.

At the crux of the dispute are the escalating costs of health care and pension benefits and the potential impact on wages from the entry next year of Wal-Mart Supercenters into California.

"The employers have chosen to draw a line in the sand to get ahead of the curve [on Wal-Mart]," Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324, told SN last week. "There are no supercenters here yet, but they fear the influx, so they've taken the positions they have."

According to Conger, the employers' proposals -- to make cuts in health and pension benefits and to introduce a two-tier wage and benefits system for new hires -- are unreasonable. "Those proposals are not based on need -- we believe they are based on greed," he said.

He said the unions have suggested cost-savings programs that could be discussed. "We could have gone a long way toward keeping the chains competitive, but they have chosen instead to decimate the health and pension plans," Conger noted.

According to John Burgon, Ralphs president, "As responsible companies, we are seeking nothing more than a fair contract that will help us remain competitive in the face of soaring health care and benefit costs and increased competition from lower-cost operators.

"All three [chains] want to continue offering comprehensive benefits to our existing employees and their families, but it must be within the context of the current marketplace."

The three chains intend to remain open if there is a strike using temporary personnel.

Stater Bros., Gelson's and area independents have agreed to accept whatever contract the three largest chains negotiate and will subsequently be unaffected by any labor action, as will Food 4 Less, a Kroger subsidiary, whose contract doesn't expire until February.

UFCW representatives said members of several other unions -- including the teamsters, bakers and confectioners, and hotel and restaurant employees -- have indicated they will support a strike and will refuse to cross picket lines.

If there is a strike, it would be the first work stoppage in Southern California since 1975.

Under the expired agreement, supermarket clerks earned up to $17.90 per hour in wages after two years of employment, up to $26.85 per hour for Sunday work and $53.70 per hour for working on contractual holidays. In addition, all eligible clerks, from baggers to supervisors, were entitled to full health care coverage, with no out-of-pocket premiums, a $10 co-payment for doctor visits and nominal prescription co-pays, with no premiums paid by employees and no deductibles.

According to Conger, the unions oppose the monthly premiums contained in the employers' offer.

He also said the employers' proposal would pay significantly lower health care and pension benefits to new hires and would require 7,800 hours, or six years, to qualify for the highest wage rates, compared with the two-year progression in the expired contract.