After seven weeks of frequently stalemated negotiations over union work rules, representatives of seven Southern California supermarket chains and 22,000 striking and locked-out workers on Monday reached tentative agreement on new contracts.
Members of the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers will vote on new three-year contract proposals on Thursday.
Officials of both sides imposed a news blackout after the final round of talks, which began at 7 p.m. Sunday and ended at 6 a.m. Monday. Spokesmen for the unions and the Food Employers Council, which represents the markets, refused to discuss terms of the new offer or even to confirm that union representatives had approved it. The spokesmen said only that the offer would be submitted to members.
However, several sources close to the negotiations said the new offer had the union negotiators' blessing. The sources noted that union representatives had turned down management requests that earlier contract proposals be submitted to the memberships.
Job Security a Factor
As has been the case in many recent strikes in various industries, the market dispute hinged on demands by employers for a weakening of several union work rules that management viewed as a barrier to cutting labor costs. The unions resisted, saying the changes threatened job security and contending that the chains' recent profits belied the need for cost-cutting.
That, said mediator Frank Allen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, made the negotiations a grinding, frustrating affair. "I've never experienced anything like this in 20 years," Allen said. "It was very difficult."
In recent weeks, the markets had given up significant chunks of their demands in Teamster negotiations. They dropped a provision that would have allowed them to move into new warehouses without automatically granting the Teamsters recognition at the new sites. They also sharply scaled back a two-tier salary plan that would have paid lower wages to workers hired after adoption of the new contract.
The remaining sticking points appeared to be whether the Teamsters could force the markets to completely abolish the two-tier proposal and whether the meat cutters could win their demand that any two-tier system for meat cutters and wrappers include a guarantee that no current employee's hours would be cut in favor of lower-paid workers.
Chances of a settlement had appeared dim last week when both sides issued no-compromise statements on those issues.
David Willauer, a spokesman for the markets, said Monday that if union members approve the new contract offer, "it will protect us for the future--the next two, three, four years. It puts us on the right road. . . . I can't say we achieved 100% of what we wanted, but in a seven-week strike that doesn't happen."
Both unions had vowed not to return to work until contracts with both had been resolved. The Teamsters represent 12,000 truck drivers and warehouse employees, while the United Food and Commercial Workers represent 10,000 meat cutters and meat wrappers.
The market strike, the first by Southern California Teamsters and meat cutters since 1973, began Nov. 5 after talks on new contracts fell apart, forcing about 1,000 stores between San Diego and San Luis Obispo to hire thousands of non-union drivers, warehousemen, fork lift operators and meat cutters.
Solidarity of Chains
The only chain that was actually struck was Vons. However, in a show of management solidarity, six other chains--Albertson's, Alpha Beta, Hughes, Lucky, Ralphs and Safeway--locked out members of the unions when the Vons strike began. Some Safeway stores also have been picketed during the strike.
The strike has been marked by persistent violence against supermarket property. About 60 people, including several union members, have been arrested, and there have been more than 20 strike-related injuries. In addition, there have been numerous instances of stink bombs in markets, forcing evacuations of customers.
In the opening weeks of the strike, markets were plagued by sporadic shelf shortages as newly hired drivers and other employees had trouble adjusting to the food delivery chain. Business at Vons, where the unions placed the majority of their pickets, initially fell 5% to 10% behind the pace of last year.
However, in recent weeks the shelf shortages appeared to ease, and the lack of any visible public discomfort from the strike made it difficult for unions to muster public support.
Confusion Over Issues
The unions also had difficulty in educating the public about why they were on strike. Rank-and-file supermarket picketers said it troubled them that many consumers believed they were on strike primarily for higher wages.
The market chains, despite 1984 profits that ranged from $23 million to $185 million, contended that they must cut labor costs to compete against non-union discount stores and drugstores.
The unions said they feared that the markets would manipulate more flexible work rules to cut the hours of higher-paid veteran employees.
Under the current contract, meat wrappers make $12.16 an hour, while journeymen meat cutters make $13.48 an hour. Teamster warehouse personnel make $13.85 an hour, while drivers make $15.25.