Negotiations to resume in California grocery strike, but pickets likely to spread

| Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Four Southern California grocery companies and the United Food and Commercial Workers will resume negotiations Dec. 19 on how to end a strike by roughly 70,000 workers, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said in a statement.

The labor dispute, which centers on health care benefits, started Oct. 21 and covers more than 800 Southern California stores operated by Vons, Ralph's, Pavilions and Albertsons. Those stores make up roughly 60 percent of all groceries in the southern half of the state.

The California labor action soon spread, with grocery workers in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky going on strike soon after. While those strikes were under way, labor disputes started to flare up in other parts of the nation. Federal mediators were able to either end or avoid strikes in several locations, and the action in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky ended a week ago when workers and Kroger, the operator of the 44 stores targeted by that action, reached an agreement.

However, the California strike has continued with little sign of progress.

Peter J. Hurtgen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, will act as mediator when negotiations resume, the service announced. The parties were last at the bargaining table on December 7.

"Our goal in the mediation process is to build understanding and to move the parties toward an agreement," he said in a statement. "In this case, we are dealing with particularly difficult issues."

Meanwhile, as the date for new negotiations neared, organized labor was moving to step up its efforts in the dispute.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported recently that labor officials, in the wake of a summit of union advocates and leaders held in the area, were likely to announce a expansion of the supermarket picket lines nationwide. The summit was being held to raise funds to support the union local leading the grocery strike, the newspaper said.

"We, across North America, are going to hold the line for health care, and we're going to start to put into place a nationwide strategy to do that," Greg Denier, a spokesman for the UFCW, told the newspaper. "Picket lines will be erected in several locations throughout the country."

The grocery chains have also taken action to bolster their position. Kroger Co., owner of the Ralph’s stores in the strike zone, is importing up to 60 non-union workers from the Atlanta area, a continent away, to keep the West Coast stores open, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported recently.

The same union covers workers in Atlanta and Southern California, the newspaper reported, and the movement of assistant managers and other non-union employees from one area to another is a sticking point with the union.

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