'Negotiating in Press' Is Charged : Ad Brings New Rancor to Supermarket Strike

Times Labor Writer

A new source of rancor was added to Southern California's supermarket strike as negotiators for both sides sparred over a newspaper advertisement taken out by market management in eight newspapers Wednesday.

Representatives of striking workers and management of seven major supermarket chains returned to the bargaining table for the first time since Saturday, but no progress was reported.

The morning session of talks between the Teamsters Union and the Food Employers Council was heated, according to both sides. The Teamsters made strenuous objections to the newspaper advertisement and accused the council of "negotiating through the press," according to Jerry Vercruse, chief negotiator for the Teamsters.

After about 15 minutes, the talks recessed for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Then, at an early-afternoon session, the Teamsters gave the council a response to a demand management made last week that it be allowed to subcontract some work currently done by union members. At 3 p.m., having met for another 25 minutes, the two sides recessed for lunch. They resumed talks in late afternoon.

The strike, which began Nov. 5, involves 10,000 drivers, warehouse and office employees, represented by the Teamsters, and 12,000 meat cutters and meat wrappers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Seven market chains, Vons, Albertsons, Alpha Beta, Hughes, Lucky (Food Basket in San Diego), Ralphs and Safeway, are affected.

The full-page advertisement that was the source of the new controversy was carried in The Times and seven other Southland newspapers Wednesday morning. Purchased by the Food Employers Council, the ad was entitled, "Sometimes Even a Union Can Go Too Far." Underneath the title in large bold letters, the ad asked: "Shouldn't a warehouse be built where it can cut shipping costs? The union says no."

A map showed the site of a proposed grocery warehouse in Northern California, more than 400 miles from Los Angeles. The ad stated that building the Northern California warehouse "would make possible considerable reductions in the cost of those products to the supermarkets."

However, the ad continued, the company is hamstrung by a contract that says "a distant supermarket must continue to be served by its present warehouse facility. No matter what.

"We feel that the union is behaving like a dinosaur in this instance. By binding the hands of supermarket management, the Union is forcing costly inefficiency on an industry that has already lost numerous stores and thousands of jobs during the past few years."

In Wednesday's bargaining session, Teamster negotiators complained to management about the advertisement. "We told them we were disturbed about the ad," Vercruse said. "We were taken totally by surprise. . . . We were not aware until . . . this morning that there was any problem with them moving a warehouse up there."

He said the ad referred to a situation involving the Teamsters and Certified Grocers of California, a Commerce-based grocery wholesale firm. Certified's warehouses are being picketed by the Teamsters as part of the supermarket strike.

"The union had been discussing it with Certified and they had agreed and we had agreed we would transfer our members who wanted to go up there and retain their seniority and then Certified would negotiate a contract with the local union in the area," Vercruse said.

William O. Christy, president and chief executive officer of Certified Grocers, confirmed that his company had been negotiating with the Teamsters on the new warehouse and that talks were continuing. "We are making good progress," Christy said. "I would concur that the Teamsters up to this point have been supportive of the premise of us locating a facility in Northern California."

Christy added, however, "The current contract does give us some concern given, its language. We need to get clarification and (the major supermarket) negotiations are probably the best time to accomplish that."

David Willauer, spokesman for the Food Employers Council, said the Certified situation is not the only one that concerns management. He said the Teamsters had objected to requests by other employers to relocate facilities or to service markets out of more conveniently located warehouses. He said management sought language changes in the contract in an attempt to secure a consistent policy on the issue.

Vercruse said the union had given management a detailed response to the Food Employers Council on the warehouse question and other subcontracting issues. Willauer said management's initial reaction to the Teamsters' proposal was unfavorable.

The dominant issue in negotiations so far has been the demand by management that it be permitted to subcontract some work now done by union members. Management asserts that subcontracting is needed to cut labor costs and to allow the major chains to compete more effectively with non-union discount stores.

The Teamsters say the proposal threatens the jobs of veteran employees.

In a related development, the Teamsters requested that a formal news blackout be imposed on the talks and that all queries from the press be handled by Frank Allen, the federal mediator supervising the talks. Vercruse said the union proposed the blackout because the Food Employers Council had announced its intention to run more advertisements.

Vercruse said the blackout would mean that neither side would run any more ads. The unions have placed one full-page ad thus far.

Willauer said that management would not agree to such a blackout "unless there was some substantial progress being made in the negotiations. We consider their response (on subcontracting) no progress. Some of our committee members thought it was tightening the noose a little tighter."

Meanwhile, in an incident that police said could have been related to the walkout, tires were slashed on 86 rental cars in the parking lot of the Conestoga Inn, an Anaheim motel where several Alpha Beta middle-management employees were staying. There were no suspects, police said.

In another strike-related incident, Sammy Jones, 36, a Vons truck driver, was arrested Wednesday after he pointed a .22-caliber handgun at several pickets while making a delivery at a supermarket in Sylmar, Los Angeles police said.

"After a brief argument, he pulled out the gun and essentially said, 'Don't mess with my truck,' " Officer Stan Cochrane said.

Jones was booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and held in lieu of $2,000 bail.

Times staff writers Gary Jarlson in Orange County and Marc Igler in the San Fernando Valley contributed to this story.

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