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California and the West

Grocery talks see little progress

The workers' contract expires March 5. The prospect for a strike or stoppage is unclear.

February 23, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The contract for 65,000 Southern California grocery workers is likely to expire in a little more than a week without a new pact.

But the prospect for an imminent strike, a possible work stoppage or prolonged negotiations remains a big question mark. The current contract expires March 5.

"It would be an uncertain state of affairs," said Michael Shimpock of SG&A Campaigns, a Pasadena media and political consulting firm hired by the local unions to speak about the talks.

Steven Burd, Safeway Inc.'s chief executive, was equally vague Thursday about what's ahead. "I don't think you could look at March 5 as any kind of magical date," he said.

If both sides don't agree to extend the contract beyond March 5, the United Food and Commercial Workers union will be free to strike and the three large grocery chains will be allowed to lock out workers. Either one could threaten a repeat of the bitter 4 1/2 -month work stoppage that disrupted shopping patterns across Southern California.

There are interim steps that both sides could take short of a strike or work stoppage. Each side could take small punitive actions, such as employers withholding union dues collection or workers striking single stores, that could escalate into a wider battle, Shimpock said.

Both the employers and the workers would be hurt. During the last stoppage, picket lines went up in front of the supermarkets and shoppers turned to Trader Joe's, Costco, Stater Bros. and other stores that weren't part of the dispute.

Workers had to get by without their normal paychecks, and only about half those who were employed at the time of the stoppage remain in the business.

Supervalu Inc.'s Albertsons chain, Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs -- the three large employers -- lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business during the 2003-2004 dispute and in the year that followed as they strove to attract shoppers back to their stores.

The job action "was an unusual occurrence, not the norm," said Adena Tessler of Rogers Group, a Century City public relations firm hired by the three major chains to speak about the contract talks.

Tessler said that supermarket-UFCW negotiations in other regions had gone on as long as 22 months past a contract expiration without incident.

Safeway's Burd talked about the negotiations in a Thursday conference call about the company's earnings. He reported that Safeway's fourth-quarter profit surged 77% to $308 million, its best performance in recent years.

He called this round of talks "a slow process" that has been complicated by the UFCW refusing to bargain with the employers as a group.

In response, the employers have refused to negotiate with all seven UFCW locals in the region as a group, which has created 27 separate sets of negotiations.

In the last month of sporadic meetings, there has been little movement, representatives of both sides said. Shimpock said the union was waiting for a response from the employers to dozens of proposals on such items as job classifications, overtime, vacations, grievances, Sunday and holiday pay, and disciplinary matters, which he called "the guts of the contract."

He said once those issues were out of the way, the union would deal with wages and health benefits.

But at this point neither side has scheduled any more meetings, Tessler said.

This year, the union signed agreements with Colton-based Stater Bros. and Encino-based Gelson's, which together control about 12% to 15% of the Southern California market, according to industry estimates. The three major employers, by comparison, have more than 50% of the market.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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