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Between grocers and UFCW, something’s gotta give


LOS ANGELES —Negotiations between three Southern California supermarket chains and union workers broke off for a second time on May 8 and prompted an angry exchange on both sides. The talks are expected to resume, though, as grocers and the union try to avoid what would be a crippling strike.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union that represents 65,000 employees at 785 Albertsons, Safeway and Kroger stores in the region rejected a health care proposal on May 8 and put negotiations on hold. “As far was we’re concerned, talks have broken off,” said union spokesman Mike Shimpock. “At this point, we are no longer in negotiations with the markets.”

In response, the grocery chains released a joint statement that accused the union of grandstanding for the media. “Once again, the union has chosen to walk away from negotiations, ignore the federal mediator’s request for a media blackout and engage in media stunts rather than productive negotiations,” the statement said.

Despite the rhetoric, negotiations between the two sides were expected to resume the third week of May as they try to reach a compromise on issues of health benefits and wage increases. Their contract expired March 5 and is being extended on a daily basis but could be terminated within 72 hours by either side if negotiations completely break down. Talks between the chains and the union could extend into the summer as they try to hammer out a new contract and avoid a repeat of the 19-week strike of 2003-2004.

In late March, UCFW workers voted to authorize a strike against Albertsons if a new deal wasn’t worked out by mid-April. On April 4, the chains countered with an agreement to lock out union workers if any chain was the target of a strike. At that juncture, a federal mediator was called in to keep both sides at the table.

The key point right now seems to be health care. Union officials want better benefits for the so-called “second-tier” employees hired after the last strike who represent about half the union’s employees. For their part, the grocers say they need to keep health care costs and salaries down to remain competitive.

Despite the problems facing both sides, analysts feel a deal will eventually be worked out. “It’s a situation where neither side wins if there’s a strike,” said Retail Management Consultants president George Whalin. “They’re going to have to compromise at some point to get this done.”

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