Hoping to end the monthlong Southern California supermarket strike, the nation's top mediator said he would bring both sides back to the bargaining table Monday for the first time since the labor dispute began.
Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, initiated the meeting between the three major grocery chains and the union representing 70,000 workers. Hurtgen said in a statement Friday that he had asked the parties to "refrain from providing details of the talks."
The scheduling of the meeting was the first glimmer of a possible break in the stalemate between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons grocery chains. Both sides, however, were careful not to raise expectations.
"I'm going in good faith, but I'm not optimistic that this will lead to an end of the strike," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, the largest of seven union locals involved. "Obviously, we've got major hurdles to overcome."
Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon said the company was "still committed to resolving this. We hope the unions would also begin to understand the impact of rising health-care costs."
The time and location of the meeting were not disclosed.
On Friday, the UFCW stepped up its campaign against Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions stores, by airing radio ads and setting up pickets at stores in Northern California, which is outside the strike area in Southern and Central California.
The union maintains that Safeway and its chief executive, Steven A. Burd, forced the strike by taking a hard line during negotiations.
Northern California supermarket employees will continue to report for work as scheduled, with the picket lines being staffed by workers from stores in Southern and Central California. The goal is to increase the financial pressure on Safeway by hurting its sales in areas apart from the labor dispute, said UFCW spokesman Greg Denier
"The Northern California action is the first step in the nationalization of the supermarket strike," he said.
The strike was launched against Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11 after a last-ditch effort at federal mediation failed. Days earlier, UFCW members overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal that called for cuts in medical and pension benefits and a significantly lower wage and benefit package for new hires.
The following day, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Albertsons Inc. honored an agreement made by the three chains and locked out their own union workers. In all, 70,000 workers from 859 stores have been sidelined.
The grocery chains say the workers must make concessions because of a growing threat from nonunion competition such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The union counters that the chains are exaggerating their vulnerability to lower-cost rivals.
Both sides have suffered substantial losses from the strike and lockouts. Picketed stores are doing only about 25% of their normal business, according to analysts and union estimates.
On Oct. 31, the union pulled its pickets from Ralphs' stores to focus pressure on Safeway and Albertsons. Ralphs has been mobbed with shoppers since.
Stock prices have fallen for the chains since the strike began, particularly for Safeway. At the end of trading Oct. 10, the day before the strike began, Safeway stock was at $23.83, Albertsons stood at $20.97 and Kroger closed at $19.22.
On Friday, Safeway shares closed at $20.22, Albertsons was at $19.98 and Kroger shares closed at $18.13. All trade on the New York Stock Exchange.
Meanwhile, the market employees are each losing hundreds of dollars a week in wages. If they picket full time, they can collect up to $300 a week in strike benefits from the local and national union funds. Those payouts cost the UFCW more than $10 million a week.