Mediator called into grocery labor talks

With little progress being made in contract talks between Southern California's major grocery chains and the union representing 62,000 of their workers, a federal mediator is being brought in to meet with both sides in the coming weeks.

Officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers, citing a news blackout over the negotiations, declined to say which side contacted the federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Representatives of Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons — the three big chains in the talks — could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Last week, the union said its members had voted overwhelmingly to authorize their leaders to call a strike if they couldn't reach an agreement on a new contract with the supermarket operators.

The strike authorization, which required the backing of at least two-thirds of those voting to pass, does not mean that a walkout or an employer lockout is imminent. Some analysts said the vote could help jump-start the talks, which have dragged on for weeks.

The negotiators are trying to replace a four-year contract that was set to expire March 6 but is being extended day to day. The contract covers supermarket checkers, baggers, meat cutters and other unionized employees of Ralphs, which is owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.; Vons and Pavilions, owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons, owned by SuperValu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

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