One year after brokering an end to the costly West Coast port shutdown, Peter J. Hurtgen is back in California, this time seeking to settle the supermarket strike and lockout.
Hurtgen, the 62-year-old director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, is riding a recent string of successes in fixing labor disputes.
In September, Hurtgen mediated a new contract between Verizon Communications Inc. and two unions, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The deal averted a strike by 78,000 workers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Last month, his agency mediated a new pact between three grocery chains in St. Louis and 10,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, ending a three-week strike and lockout.
The stakes are much larger in California.
About 70,000 UFCW workers have been idled at 859 supermarkets in Southern and Central California for the last month. The union struck Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores, prompting Kroger Co.'s Ralphs division and Albertsons Inc. to lock out their workers in a show of corporate solidarity.
There were no talks until Hurtgen persuaded both sides to sit down with him Monday, their first meeting since the strike began Oct. 11.
During the labor dispute at West Coast ports last year, Hurtgen was deft at keeping negotiators at the table, said Steve Sugerman, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast terminal operators and shipping lines.
"He came in and really took charge," Sugerman said. "And he kept people bargaining."
To be sure, Hurtgen had more clout than normal during the dock shutdown, which disrupted shipments of goods nationwide just as the holiday selling season neared. After the maritime association locked out about 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for 10 days, the White House took the rare step of intervening to get the ports reopened -- and to get the talks restarted with Hurtgen present.
Even so, Hurtgen helped the parties reach a pact not only by keeping the talks going, but also by knowing when to let each side cool off, Sugerman said.
"Hurtgen was able to relieve some of the pressure," he said. "For example, we would keep working until we would agree on one big piece [of the dispute] and then he would have us take a few days off."
The same technique helped ward off the Verizon strike, said CWA spokesman Jeff Miller. "Certainly Mr. Hurtgen and his staff were very skillful in just hanging with the process, keeping the talks from breaking off completely," Miller said. "He's very tenacious, and he's certainly a pro. He had a good feel for when to bring the sides together and when to let things cool off."
Hurtgen, who wasn't available for comment because of the supermarket talks, usually insists that neither side talk to the media during negotiations, to avoid inflaming the other side with posturing and rhetoric, observers said.
Colleagues and labor negotiators describe Hurtgen as open, friendly, low-key, deliberate and a consensus-builder. He asks lots of questions and, when he answers, chooses his words carefully.
"Peter has a very steady personality," said Ezra Singer, Verizon's executive vice president of human resources and one of its labor negotiators. "He'll listen to all sides and then he'll prod. He doesn't get excitable, doesn't shout or rant and rave."
In the past, some portrayed Hurtgen as having a management leaning when it came to labor disputes. He previously had spent years as a partner at management law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Washington.
But others dismissed that notion by noting that he left the firm six years ago, and by pointing to the rest of Hurtgen's career. A native of Madison, Wis., he is a Republican who was appointed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in 1997 to the National Labor Relations Board, which administers the nation's labor laws.
Hurtgen was consistently pro-management as an NLRB member, but he still became the object of right-wing criticism for some of his labor positions, and the incoming Bush administration did not reappoint him to another full term.
He left the NLRB and, in mid-2002, became director of the mediation service.
As he tackles the California grocery dispute, Hurtgen brings a range of experience and talents, observers said, including the ability to win the trust of management and labor with his neutrality.
Another is his knack of persuading each side to accept that they "will not be completely pleased nor dissatisfied," said Verizon's Singer. "For negotiations to be effective, neither side will get everything they wanted."
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
On February 12, 2004 the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had stated repeatedly that 70,000 workers were involved in the supermarket labor dispute in Central and Southern California, said that the number of people on strike or locked out was actually 59,000. A union spokeswoman, Barbara Maynard, said that 70,000 UFCW members were, in fact, covered by the labor contract with supermarkets that expired last year. But 11,000 of them worked for Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., Arden Group Inc.'s Gelson's and other regional grocery companies and were still on the job. (See: "UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2004, Business C-11)
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