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Hopes Are Raised as Talks Go On

Times Staff Writers

Negotiators in the supermarket strike talks spent more than eight hours at the bargaining table Wednesday and will meet again today, swelling hopes on the picket lines.

With pressure to settle mounting on both sides, the talks -- heading into their ninth straight day -- were described by people close to negotiators as the most serious since the strike began four months ago.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union and the three supermarket companies involved had gone nearly two months without formal sessions before this series began under the direction of federal mediator Peter Hurtgen at an undisclosed location.

“We’re definitely hopeful,” said Jeannie McGrew, a 28-year grocery store veteran who worked as a scan coordinator at a Vons in Pacific Palisades before the strike. “Every day on the line, the first half-hour of talk is about the negotiations. If they are not talking, there is no hope.”

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For the three supermarket companies -- Albertsons Inc.; Kroger Co., parent of the Ralphs chain; and Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions stores -- the dispute has been taking a toll. The companies are estimated to have forgone more than $1.5 billion in combined sales, as many shoppers have avoided the picket lines and taken their business elsewhere.

Safeway, for instance, is suffering a sales loss of more than $7 million every day, analyst Meredith Adler of Lehman Bros. wrote in a report last week after the company said the strike contributed to a loss of $696 million in its fourth quarter.

Still, the chains have considerable staying power, with annual sales ranging from $35 billion to $52 billion. They have defended their stance by saying that the labor-cost savings from a new contract in Southern California, and lower long-term labor expenses elsewhere, would more than make up for the sales lost to the strike and lockout.

Indeed, labor contracts with all three chains in other regions -- including in Northern California for Safeway -- are expiring in the next few months. Analysts said the negotiations on the horizon were incentives for the companies to wrap up the dispute. (A contract covering 5,700 workers at 101 Food 4 Less stores in Southern California had been due to expire Feb. 28, but the seven UFCW locals and Kroger, which owns the warehouse-format stores, agreed this week to extend it through April 4, according to a union statement. Employees will work under current terms until then.)

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The gains or losses each side accepts could affect the tone of the other negotiations, Adler said. “We think the outcome of that strike will be very important in determining how militant the union is in other markets.”

About 59,000 workers from 852 stores in Central and Southern California have been sidelined by the work stoppage, which began with an Oct. 11 strike against Vons and Pavilions. Ralphs and Albertsons locked out their UFCW workers the next day.

A person close to the union camp said progress at the negotiating sessions led by the federal mediator was very slow. But striking workers see the fact that talks have continued for so many days as good news.

“This is the longest they have sat down with a mediator,” said Gabbie Cienfuegos, walking the picket line at an Albertsons in Los Angeles. “It has gone on long enough. Everybody is losing.”

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Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland and Melinda Fulmer contributed to this report.


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