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Food Workers Signal They're Willing to Talk

LOS ANGELES - The union that represents 70,000 striking and locked-out grocery workers in Southern California told federal mediators yesterday that it wants to jump-start negotiations with three major supermarket chains.

It was unclear if Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons would agree to return to the bargaining table without some incentives. Safeway, the parent company of Vons, has stressed that the companies already have made their best and final contract offer. "No meetings are currently scheduled" between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the supermarket chains, said Stacia Levenfeld, a spokeswoman for Albertsons. "If the union is ready to come back to the table with a new offer, we're ready to come back to the table."

The seven union presidents involved in the labor action began meeting in Anaheim on Monday evening. It was only the second time they have been together since talks with the chains broke off Oct. 11 and a strike was called against Vons. Albertsons and Ralphs subsequently locked out their employees in a show of corporate solidarity.

Union officials said they spoke by phone yesterday morning with federal mediators in Washington and Los Angeles and signaled a willingness to participate in a new round of bargaining.

Mickey Kasparian, president of UFCW local 135 in San Diego County, nevertheless said the union expects substantial movement by the supermarkets in any talks. "This is supposed to be collective bargaining, not collective begging," Kasparian said, noting that contentious issues -- higher medical costs and a two-tier pay system with lower wages for new hires -- need to be resolved. "There is a sense here that all of the parties need to get back to the bargaining table."

Analysts said both sides have taken a bruising during the strike and lockouts, with picket lines at about 130 supermarkets in San Diego County and 730 stores elsewhere in Southern California. Picketers, many of them part-time employees with limited incomes, are receiving a maximum of $300 a week from a union strike fund if they walk the line full-time.

Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons have seen their market share in the Southern California grocery industry dip by more than 30 percent as some shoppers turn to small chains and independent stores, analysts said.

The possibility of negotiations is "a very good sign," said Merrill Lehrer, an analyst and the president of Retail Samurai Sales in San Diego. "It shows that the union is sincere in its efforts to move this beyond a stalemate."

Albertsons, Kroger, and Safeway have characterized their proposal as an equitable offer that would bring wages and benefits more into line with other workers in the retail industry.

The chains also contend that getting some concessions from the union on key issues would help the firms prepare to compete with nonunion Wal-Mart and other grocery companies about to enter the Southern California market.
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