Deadline passes but talks continue for Ca. grocers

September 19, 2011 - 3:35 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The passing of a strike deadline brought nothing but more uncertainty for Southern California grocery workers as their union's talks with three major supermarket chains stretched into the early hours Monday.

The three-day notice period required before calling a strike elapsed early Sunday night, but hours later there were still no calls for a walkout as negotiators appeared to be making modest progress.

"They're still at the table, they're gonna stay at the table until they feel there's no more progress being made," United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 spokesman Mike Shimpock told The Associated Press after the deadline. "As long as we feel there is reason to be at the bargaining table we're going to stay there."

Grocers had similar sentiments as the deadline passed.

"Progress is being made, but we do not yet have an agreement," Albertsons said in a statement. "Even though the 72-hour notice period has expired, nothing has changed. The terms of our most recent contract — including wages and benefits — remain in place, and our stores are open to serve customers as they usually are. We are still hopeful that a contract will be reached soon."

And Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged negotiators to find a solution.

"At a time of persistently high unemployment, poverty and foreclosures the last thing we need is a devastating strike that will make it more difficult for thousands of workers to put food on the table for their families, pay their mortgages and afford other basic necessities," Villaraigosa said in a statement issued just before the deadline. "I urge both sides to reach an agreement to avoid a costly and damaging strike."

Some 62,000 grocery employees have been working without a contract since March, while in discussions with negotiators for The Vons Cos. Inc.; Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.; and Albertsons, owned by Supervalu Inc.

The union distributed picket signs Sunday as time ran out, and workers held a candlelight vigil outside a Los Angeles grocery store in hope of a new offer.

A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.

Both sides in the current dispute announced in July that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but payments to the union health care trust fund remained a major sticking point.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to reject the health care proposal offered by the chains and to authorize their leaders to call a strike.

Union officials said they were responding to what they characterized as the chains' delaying tactics when they issued the required 72-hour notice Thursday evening to cancel the contract extension under which they had been working.