The possibility of a pre-Christmas settlement of the Southern California supermarket strike appeared to have faded Tuesday with the indefinite recess of negotiations between the markets and 10,000 meat cutters and meat wrappers--the segment of the work force that appeared to be the more flexible of the two unions involved in the 44-day-old labor dispute.
Since early December, the Food Employers Council, which represents seven chains, had concentrated on slowly grinding out a settlement with the Teamsters Union, which represents 12,000 drivers and warehouse employees. Negotiations with that union were continuing Tuesday night.
Management's hope had been that once the Teamster contract was resolved, the meat cutters could be brought into the fold relatively quickly. Both unions have vowed not to return to work until both have signed new three-year contracts.
The two unions struck Vons on Nov. 5 after contract talks soured. In response, six other chains--Lucky, Hughes, Safeway, Ralphs, Alpha Beta and Albertson's--locked out union members. About 1,000 supermarkets have been affected by the labor dispute.
Meat cutter negotiations broke off late Monday night and, as has been the case through most of the dispute, the issue of job security was the sticking point.
Dan Swinton, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers, said Tuesday that the meat cutters continue to insist that the markets include in the new contract "a guarantee that no current journeyman wrappers or cutters will be displaced" as a result of the markets' demand for a loosening of union work rules.
The markets want to pay substantially lower wages to meat cutters hired after the adoption of a new contract. Negotiators for the meat cutters have indicated a grudging willingness to adopt this so-called "two-tier" plan, but only if pledges are made that higher-paid workers will not be forced out in a cost-cutting scheme.
David Willauer, a spokesman for the markets, said Tuesday that employers are not willing to make such a broad guarantee because it would tie their hands financially. "Your job's not guaranteed. My job's not guaranteed. We're not going to guarantee the jobs of any meat cutters," he said.
In contrast to the meat cutters, Teamster negotiators have vowed that they will not sign a contract until management's two-tier proposal is eliminated.
Last week, the markets offered a compromise in which only about 20% of newly hired Teamsters would be affected by a two-tier provision. However, Jerry Vercruse, the Teamsters' chief negotiator, said he would never recommend approval of a contract with any two-tier provision. The system creates two levels of employees and is harmful to workplace morale, he said.
Two other major issues in the Teamster dispute appear to have been largely resolved. Management earlier this month dropped a proposal that would have allowed markets to move into new warehouses without automatically granting the Teamsters recognition. And the two sides say they have reached a compromise on a management demand to subcontract work now done by Teamsters.