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Supermarkets Reject Union Bid for Binding Arbitration

Times Staff Writer

A proposal by union leaders to end the supermarket strike and submit their contract dispute to binding arbitration fell flat Wednesday when grocery companies rejected the offer, crushing the hopes of many striking and locked-out workers.

In a joint statement, the companies said the offer was “just another effort to shift the focus away from the United Food and Commercial Workers’ apparent inability to find a negotiated settlement to this labor dispute.” They said they wanted to continue talks with the help of federal mediator Peter J. Hurtgen.

The arbitration offer was intended to put public pressure on the supermarkets to settle the nearly 4-month-old dispute. Some national and local labor leaders were opposed to the tactic, thinking it could telegraph a sense of defeat on the UFCW’s part. Strategists with the AFL-CIO, which last month stepped in to take control of national strategy for the strike, had tried to persuade UFCW locals to postpone announcing their offer, according to a person familiar with the situation.

At a news conference Wednesday, Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, said, “Our members have struggled too long. The public has struggled too long. Let’s put an end to this strike.” Icaza, flanked by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, said union members would return to work as soon as the stores agreed to binding arbitration.

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The arbitration offer had been shrouded in secrecy until the news conference. On Tuesday, the union had issued a statement saying a “dramatic development” would be announced, raising hopes among many union members who monitored radio and television reports throughout the day.

Within two hours of the announcement, they knew no end to the strike was in sight. “It’s pretty grim out here,” said Darcy Crary, a Vons cashier in Orange, speaking from the picket line. “People are mad and mean. I just feel sick to my stomach.”

The idea for the offer came out of a meeting attended by the presidents of the seven UFCW locals in Central and Southern California that are involved in the strike and lockout, according to several of the presidents. They have been hearing from anxious union members, many of whom have run through savings and lost cars and homes.

“We did some very good thinking outside the box,” said Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Orange County. “We think this is a sign of strength, not of weakness.”

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But one Los Angeles labor activist who asked not to be identified said, “There are better ways to surrender.”

Academics and attorneys said it would have been highly unlikely for the supermarkets to agree to let a third party decide contract issues.

“It really is another act of desperation” on the part of the union, said Michael Theodore, a former National Labor Relations Board attorney who works with employers at L.A. law firm Proskauer Rose.

“The grocers are basically getting everything they want out of this,” Theodore said. “They’re still doing well on Wall Street. Protests aside, they seem to be standing firm. There’s no incentive for them to agree to this.”

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John Arnold, a spokesman for mediator Hurtgen, declined to comment on the arbitration offer. He said Hurtgen had held discussions with both sides “and the tone of those discussions are such that Director Hurtgen is very hopeful he’ll be able to make an announcement soon” that formal talks will resume.

The supermarkets want to cap their contributions for employee healthcare benefits and to create a significantly lower pay scale for new hires. The union has offered what it calls significant concessions on healthcare benefits. The last mediated negotiations broke off more than a month ago, though there have been informal talks between the parties.

In a statement Wednesday, the supermarket chains said that their officers had met with UFCW national leaders in Denver on Jan. 15 and 16 and that they had made progress on some proposals.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the union’s lead negotiator, Steve Stemerman, supermarket negotiators outlined “new approaches” they said were agreed to in Denver. According to the letter, they consisted primarily of delaying the proposed reductions in benefits until the final year of the three-year contract.

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The UFCW launched the strike Oct. 11 against Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores. Albertsons Inc. and Kroger Co.'s Ralphs chain locked out union employees the next day.

Times staff writer James F. Peltz contributed to this report.


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