Talks to end grocery strike break down after one day; no agreement in sight

| Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Talks between officials of four grocery retailers and the United Food and Commercial Workers broke down Saturday, Dec. 20, only a day after they were revived by a federal mediator, media outlets reported.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service scheduled the new round of talks for Friday, Dec. 19, in an attempt to resolve a strike by 70,000 members of the union. 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 parties were last at the bargaining table on December 7. Peter J. Hurtgen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, acted as mediator for both rounds, the federal service announced.

However, despite his intervention, the new round ended as the previous ones did – with no agreement in sight.

The union offered a proposal that would have lowered the cost of worker health care for the retailers by $350 million to $500 million, Reuters news service reported. However, all through the conflict the stores have sought $1 billion in cuts. The health care dispute is at the center of the strike, as well as several other labor disputes in the grocery industry across the country.

Hurtgen said in a statement that the negotiations were recessed indefinitely after both sides in the dispute advised him they saw no purpose in continuing.

However, Hurtgen said he would keep in contact with the two sides and would ask negotiators to return to the table “when I determine that it may be productive to do so.”

Meanwhile, the union told The Associated Press it would pull pickets from the retailers distribution centers. The action was taken so the chains would end a lockout of their workers.

The pickets at the distribution centers, which were set up in late November, drew International Brotherhood of Teamsters into the fray. The Teamsters told The Los Angeles Times the union’s members would not cross those picket lines. Teamsters not only drive some of the trucks supplying the distribution centers, they also work in the centers.

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