The federal mediator in the Southern California grocery talks recessed the negotiations Tuesday after failing to make much headway in coaxing the major supermarket chains and the workers' union into a new contract.
Meanwhile, the union said it planned to begin mobilizing workers this week to prepare for a strike or lockout by selecting picket captains, stocking their food banks and assembling picket signs.
In a statement, the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said negotiations between the seven United Food and Commercial Workers union locals in the region and Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs would resume Monday.
John Arnold, a spokesman for the mediation service, declined to elaborate. But people familiar with the talks said negotiations remained stuck on several key issues, including how to fund an improved healthcare plan, the number of hours employees have to work to reach the top pay level, the size and timing of wage increases and funding for the pension plan. They said both sides were tired and needed a break.
Like much of what has taken place over six months of talks, the chains and the union disagreed over the reasons behind the recess.
Union officials said talks had stalled.
"The mediator told all of us to take the time and evaluate our positions and come back on Monday prepared to reach an agreement," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles.
But a spokeswoman for the employers said the break had been scheduled to give negotiators and the mediator, many of whom live in other states, a long holiday weekend after many consecutive days of talks.
"Every time there is a break or a holiday, the unions have said the talks have stalled or broken off when it is simply a break with a date to resume talks. That's why the federal mediator said it was a recess," said Adena Tessler, spokeswoman for the supermarkets. "To call it anything else only frightens workers and alarms customers."
Union leaders plan to take the next several days to review the proposals on the table and then "prepare our members for the worst case scenario," said Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Buena Park.
"This is not saber rattling or desk pounding," Conger said. "We are coming to the end, which will either be a settlement or a strike."
Icaza said the union still hoped to avoid the type of dispute that resulted in a 141-day work stoppage in 2003-2004 that disrupted grocery shopping throughout Southern California, caused financial hardship for workers and cost the employers about $1.5 billion.
"But our members are frustrated. We have negotiated for the past six months and it is time to reach a contract. It has never taken this long before," he said.
The contract was set to expire March 5 but has been extended on a rolling basis. Either side must give 72 hours' notice of cancellation, so if a strike were called it couldn't begin until late next week.
Contract negotiations between the chains and 65,000 union workers resumed June 27 after a recess during which employees voted to give UFCW leaders the authority to call a strike against Ralphs, a unit of Kroger Co. of Cincinnati, and Vons and Pavilions stores, which are owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.
Earlier this year, workers had authorized a strike against Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.
Successive moves toward a strike come after a period when both sides closed the gap on several key issues, including shortening the waiting period for new workers to gain health insurance. They also agreed on improving preventive healthcare benefits for workers.
But the talks stalled on the amount of contributions the employers should make to the trust fund that provides the health insurance and on the size and timing of wage increases, among other issues.
Arnold, the spokesman for the mediation service, said it was not unusual to have breaks in negotiations, but he also noted that the union's announcement of more strike preparations was an "unfortunate juxtaposition."