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They said they are preparing for the worst.Leaders of United Food and Commercial Workers Union locals across the country told SN they are ready to lead their membership out on strike if supermarket companies won't agree to more generous contracts than the settlement that ended the four-and-a-half-month Southern California work stoppage late last month -- although no strike votes have been held, and

They said they are preparing for the worst.

Leaders of United Food and Commercial Workers Union locals across the country told SN they are ready to lead their membership out on strike if supermarket companies won't agree to more generous contracts than the settlement that ended the four-and-a-half-month Southern California work stoppage late last month -- although no strike votes have been held, and some critical negotiations have yet to begin.

Tiered wage/benefit systems and retaining health care and pension benefits are issues the union leaders said could be stumbling blocks to future contract settlements.

In Northern California, where two major contracts are set to expire later this year, union leaders are even preparing to take aspects of their labor dispute national.

Jack Loveall, president of UFCW Local 488, Roseville, Calif., said, "In Northern California, we are gearing up for a fight. We are preparing to go to war, and that war will not be confined to Northern California."

This does not mean the UFCW will conduct a national strike, Loveall explained. Rather, he noted, his local would have a work stoppage while a national media and volunteer outreach campaign would urge shoppers to boycott the stores of companies involved in a labor dispute.

"We don't intend to extend picket lines all over the country because we don't believe that's cost-effective," he said. "What we do believe is effective is going to consumers and asking them to support working people against corporate giants."

Local 488 represents roughly 23,000 retail workers spread across Northern California, except for the San Francisco Bay area and Fresno, whose contract expires July 17. Approximately 13,000 of these workers are employed by the three companies involved in the Southern California strike-lockout: Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger.

A spokeswoman for Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, told SN, "Every negotiation is unique," and declined to comment on specific issues in Northern California. Kroger Co., Cincinnati, declined to comment. A representative from Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.,was not available.

While negotiations have not yet begun with the three companies, Loveall noted that he expects management's initial offer to contain at least one feature of the Southern California settlement: a two-tier wage/benefit system.

"The two-tier is extremely bad," he said. "It creates divisiveness and a morale problem with the rank-and-file membership."

Loveall also predicted that the two-tier system will exacerbate retention problems for the supermarket companies. "It's going to create a tremendous amount of turnover."

He said new workers will have to be on the job 18 months before they are covered by the health plan, and another 15 months before their dependents are eligible.

"In the grocery industry, historically, there's been a lot of churn at the bottom," Lovell said, "but we've still had a lot of people that have stayed with it because it's been a reasonable job with good health and welfare and pensions benefits."

Speaking for a coalition of eight Bay area locals, whose contract covering nearly 28,000 workers (roughly 18,000 employed by Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger) is set to expire Sept. 11, Ron Lind, secretary-treasurer, UFCW Local 428, San Jose, Calif., said he also expects the companies to include a two-tier system in its initial offer.

It is an offer, Lind noted, his membership is prepared to refuse.

"We intend for things to be different up here in the North," he said. "Our contracts are different, and the situations are different. The one thing that's the same is the resolve of our members to fight to keep their health and pension benefits.

"We have had for some time a lower health benefit for new hires, but then they go up to the top plan after two years. We intend to keep it that way."

Lind said he understands the importance of cost-containment measures when it comes to benefits. "We know that's a big issue," he said. "The costs are escalating, but we think health plan changes should be made with a scalpel, not a chainsaw."

The need for a national approach to regional strikes was an important lesson the Bay area locals learned from the Southern California dispute, Lind said.

"The companies have become national rather than regional," he explained. "They're more willing to take a longer dispute in a particular region.

"In Southern California, we didn't anticipate that. Now, we know that going in. We need to find a way to put pressure on these companies outside of the traditional ways."

Lind noted that his locals have already begun similar outreach efforts. "We're meeting with faith groups, community groups and consumers," he said.

He added that the locals had been preparing such outreach even before the Southern California dispute began last October.

On the other side of the country, two UFCW locals have been holding simultaneous joint negotiations with Safeway and Giant Food, Landover, Md., a subsidiary of Netherlands-based Ahold, since March 3 for a pair of contracts scheduled to expire March 27 and covering a total of 25,000 supermarket employees in Washington and Baltimore.

Shortly before those talks began, Jim Lowthers, president, UFCW Local 400, Landover, Md., told SN the companies' initial offer was not promising.

"I already have their proposals," Lowthers said. "They're extreme, just like Southern California. If they continue with those sorts of proposals, we're going to have trouble."

Without giving details of the proposals submitted by Safeway and Giant, Lowthers described what he saw as the greatest problems with the initial offer in Southern California. "They wanted no pension accruals, frozen pension accruals, for the next 10 years," he said. "They wanted people to pay anywhere from $50 to $100 a week for their benefits. They didn't get those things, but they took those extreme positions."

Safeway and Giant referred requests for information about the bargaining to their Washington-based lead negotiator, Harry Burton. Burton declined to discuss specific issues. "We're trying to focus on the negotiations," he said. "We're hopeful that we will reach an agreement before the contract expires. We have a history of finding a way to come together."

For his part, Lowthers noted that two features of the Southern California settlement -- a two-tier wage/benefit system and possible employee contributions to health insurance premiums -- would be deal-breakers in Washington-Baltimore. He said his local has had a two-tier wage/benefit system since 1983, and under the current contract, part-time employees in the second tier who opt for dependent care coverage have to pay $160 a month.

He added that in their first offer to the union, the companies proposed creating a three-tier system: A new, even lower tier of wages and benefits would be created, below that of the employees who had been hired since 1983.

Meanwhile, with labor management talks still under way in Washington-Baltimore, union supporters are working to build community support. A group of Washington clergymen have scheduled a meeting Wednesday to hear union representatives present their case and discuss how local religious leaders can support union members in the event of a strike.

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