The possibility of a strike at six major Southern California supermarket chains, beginning Thursday, increased markedly Sunday night when negotiators for 60,000 retail clerks rejected a final offer of the employer group and announced that they would recommend a walkout to their members.
A strike would affect about 850 stores from the Mexican border to Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo. The chains involved are Albertson's, Lucky, Ralphs, Safeway, Stater Bros. and Vons.
The unions made their announcement after their leaders met with Joseph McLaughlin, chief negotiator for the Food Employers Council, at the council's Carson office.
"We regret to announce that contract talks with the Food Employers Council have failed," the presidents of eight local unions of the United Food and Commercial Workers said in a joint statement. "The unions representing their members came to the table with moderate requests to cure most of their working problems, at no cost to the employer and at no cost to the consumer. However, management rejected us at every turn."
Change in Pattern
The contract covering the clerks expired at 12:01 a.m. today. In the past, the last night of negotiations has dragged on until the deadline, or even past it. But that pattern was broken Sunday night, union leaders said, because it was clear to them that management's final offer would not meet their goals.
"We're not going to go through a charade," said Rick Icaza, president of Los Angeles-based Local 770 of the Food and Commercial Workers.
His colleague, John Sperry, president of Local 324, based in Buena Park, agreed: "Their proposal is so bad. They're taking away so much. Their greed exceeds their need."
David Willauer, spokesman for the Food Employers, blasted the unions for making their announcement before the council had presented its final proposal in writing.
"This is a demonstration of arrogance and irresponsibility on the part of these unions," he said.
And Willauer scoffed at the union's statement that its proposal could be implemented without cost to the employers. He said the unions were seeking an increase of 96 cents an hour over the next 15 months and other improvements that would have been costly.
Management had proposed a three-year freeze in base wages, although there would have been $500 lump-sum bonuses each year.
The only thing the two sides seemed able to agree on was that they were far apart on a number of critical issues.
One was the thorny question of what constitutes the work of a "retail clerk."
The employers want to expand the jurisdiction of a "general merchandise clerk," traditionally a person who handles non-food items, such as cosmetics.
This is an important issue, because general merchandise clerks currently are paid a top wage of $8.20 an hour, while retail clerks are paid up to $12.55. If the scope of a retail clerk's job were reduced, thus creating more work for general merchandise clerks, this could save the employers a considerable amount of money.
But the union contends that the change could eliminate some of the higher-paid jobs and reduce the hours of its most senior members, thus endangering their standard of living.
The union also rejected an employer proposal that the stores be allowed to reduce the amount of money they contribute to employee health and welfare plans.
Willauer contended that current benefit levels could be maintained, even with reduced employer contributions, and that this move would help lower employer labor costs.
He said management's proposal provided that contributions would be raised in the future, if the health and welfare funds dropped below $60 million.
Union officials said they objected to the proposal on the grounds that it could endanger benefit levels.
The two sides also differed on proposed changes in benefits for retirees and on several other issues.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the eight union locals will hold membership meetings to vote on management proposals and whether to strike. The contract offer can be accepted or rejected by a majority vote of members voting by secret ballot, but it takes a two-thirds vote of those casting ballots to authorize a strike.
Union leaders would not be pinned down on when a strike would begin if members authorize one. But Thursday seemed the likely day, since voting of the eight locals is scheduled to conclude Wednesday night.
"Our picket signs are made, our picket captains have been assigned, and our war room is ready," Icaza said.
In turn, management has been advertising at stores for temporary replacements for some weeks, as the prospect of a strike increased. Willauer said some employers already have trained replacements.
Pressure to Settle
The last strike by clerks lasted five days in 1978. Sperry predicted this strike would be longer, but not of great duration. He said the fact that "40% of the industry will be operating" would put pressure on the struck stores to settle.
He was referring to the fact that three chains--Boys, Mayfair and San Diego-based Big Bear--reached interim agreements with the union over the weekend, averting the possibility of a strike at their markets.
The agreements provide that those employers will accept whatever contract the union ultimately reaches with the Food Employers Council.
Additionally, the union granted Hughes a 30-day extension of the contract.
Separate negotiations between the union and Alpha-Beta broke off last week and a strike authorization vote by that chain's workers is scheduled for Wednesday.