Grocers, union break off talks

/ Source: Reuters

Labor negotiations between grocery companies and picketing Southern California grocery workers have broken off and no new talks are scheduled, officials said.

About 70,000 grocery clerks went on strike or were locked out Oct. 11 at nearly 860 Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

Negotiations with a federal mediator had resumed Dec. 2 between the companies and representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The talks broke off Sunday evening without a comprehensive offer put forth by the union, said Stacia Levenfeld, a spokeswoman for Albertsons.

The dispute centers on a demand by the supermarket chains that workers shoulder a larger portion of their health care insurance costs.

With the strike and lockout entering its ninth week, UFCW International President Doug Dority said he is calling major UFCW local unions from the United States and Canada to a “summit” in Southern California. Union officials said they will mobilize the 1.4 million members of the union to increase strike activity.

The grocery companies in a joint statement said they “are no longer willing to absorb all costs related to maintaining health care benefits” and want to introduce a “modest level of cost sharing.”

The companies also are offering a reduced wage and benefit program for workers hired on or after Oct. 6, 2003 to help them “face the enormous challenge of the changing competitive landscape.”

The national supermarket companies that run the chains — Albertsons Inc., Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc. — say they face pressure from Wal-Mart, Costco and other so-called big box supermarket operators who can sell goods at lower prices because they don’t pay as much for their employees’ health benefits.