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Grocery talks stall after gains

June 16, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Negotiations between the region's major grocers and their union workers have stalled, even though the two sides have narrowed their differences in recent weeks, the president of the Vons supermarket chain said Friday.

"Unfortunately, it's now beginning to look like June or even July could come and go without a settlement on new Southern California ... contracts," Vons President Tom Keller said in a letter to employees.

The usually reticent Keller also acknowledged for the first time that the lengthy talks were starting to threaten the chain's business. "These tactics can cause our customers to lose faith in our ability to meet their needs, and that increases the chances they will permanently find alternatives to Vons," Keller said.

Keller complained that the union was taking too much time to respond to employer proposals on health and wage issues. That was disputed by Rick Icaza, president of Los Angeles-based Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the largest bargaining unit in the talks.

Icaza said the talks this week were hung up on a procedural issue involving how the talks were structured, which has now been resolved.

"I am optimistic that we can put a deal together notwithstanding all the rhetoric," Icaza said.

Keller and Icaza acknowledge that the two sides have steadily narrowed their differences, though gaps still remain over key issues such as the level of healthcare funding and the number of years an employee would have to work to jump onto the top pay and benefit track.

Previously in the talks, the sides have agreed on improved health and welfare benefits with shorter waiting periods for eligibility. The employers also have proposed a plan that would put all workers on a top pay tier after nine years of service.

The contract was set to expire March 5 but was extended twice. The UFCW has given employers a deadline of noon Thursday to present a contract proposal that it can offer up for a vote of the 65,000 workers involved in the talks with the Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs chains.

Earlier this year, union members authorized their leaders to call a strike against Albertsons. The employers responded by threatening to lock out workers if any one company was struck. That could lead to a repeat of the Southland grocery strike and lockout in 2003 and 2004.

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