Negotiators for three major grocery chains and the union representing their workers in Southern California met with a federal mediator through the night Friday in a last-ditch effort to avert a strike, but union leaders said they were still far apart and that a walkout could start as soon as today.
The talks began hours after the United Food and Commercial Workers union announced overwhelming membership support for a strike. With thousands of picket signs made and picket captains already assigned, about 70,000 union members from San Diego to San Luis Obispo were waiting for a signal to walk off the job.
About 97% of the more than 50,000 ballots cast by supermarket workers in the last three days were in favor of using labor's ultimate weapon.
"We are making our best effort to reach a resolution, but the employers still have not made a reasonable offer regarding health care," Greg Denier, communications director for the UFCW International Union, said late Friday.
There was no immediate comment on the eleventh-hour talks from representatives of the supermarkets involved -- Vons, Pavilions, Ralphs and Albertsons. But the companies also had prepared for a strike by hiring replacement workers, arranging to bring workers from other stores and training managers to back trucks into receiving bays.
The union said it would call a strike against only one of the three giant chains: Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions; Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs; or Albertson's Inc.
Earlier in the day, a market spokesman said in that event, the other chains would immediately lock out their union workers.
"A strike against one will be considered a strike against all, and yes, we can lock employees out," Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil said.
If a walkout is called, it would be the first grocery strike in Southern California in 25 years -- and it could have nationwide repercussions.
The UFCW is engaged in contentious negotiations in at least nine other locations, including Chicago, Albuquerque, metropolitan New York, Arizona and Indianapolis, with the major disagreement over health benefits.
Grocery workers in St. Louis walked off the job Tuesday in a similar dispute involving other chains, and both sides have declared negotiations are at an impasse. Stores there have cut hours and eliminated some services.
In Southern California, contract talks held for the last two months broke off at midnight Sunday, when the four-year master agreement expired. Leaders of the seven UFCW locals in negotiations said the final offer presented Sunday night, after 12 hours of silence from the employers, was unacceptable.
The supermarkets, citing competitive pressures from nonunion markets, are seeking cuts in health and pension benefits and a substantially lower pay scale for new hires. The union has insisted on maintaining benefits at current levels and refused to consider a two-tier pay scale.
Although both sides appeared to be entrenched in their positions, they had agreed to meet with Phyllis S. Cayse of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in her Santa Ana office. The meeting began at 3 p.m. Friday, broke up briefly in the early evening and resumed at about 7 p.m.
Denier, the UFCW official, said the continuing talks were not necessarily a sign of progress. He said there had been little movement on either side.
As the union and markets marched toward a showdown, each side appealed for public support.
The three major chains -- Kroger of Cincinnati, Safeway of Pleasanton, Calif., and Albertson's of Boise, Idaho -- took out a full-page ad in Friday's Los Angeles Times describing their offer as generous and pledging to keep their stores "staffed, stocked and open for business."
Most of the union supermarket workers are clerks who now earn up to $17.90 an hour. Their pay rate can jump to $53.70 an hour on certain holidays. They pay no premiums for family health insurance -- "almost unheard of in today's world," the ad said, even though health-care costs have jumped more than 50% in the last four years.
For its part, the union said that it was willing to accept some concessions but that the proposed cuts were too extreme. Union leaders also said the threat of competition from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and other discount retailers entering the grocery business had been overblown.
The UFCW noted that in the last 10 years, the cost of providing health care through the union-management plan in Southern California has increased only 25%, far below the national average.
Because the plan's costs rose and fell dramatically during that period, the statements from both the union and the markets are correct.
The union also noted that most clerks and other supermarket employees are part-timers, guaranteed only 24 hours of work a week, and that many work in lower-pay categories.