SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The labor focus in California has shifted north as negotiators for four chains and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 588 seek an accord on a successor contract to one that expires at midnight Saturday.
The contract covers 19,000 UFCW members at stores that stretch from here approximately 250 miles north to the Oregon border -- separate from contracts covering 28,000 members in eight union locals working at stores in the San Francisco Bay Area whose contracts are scheduled to expire Sept. 11.
The negotiations involve Albertsons, Safeway and Raley's, which is bargaining seperately. Chain representatives declined comment last week.
With the memory of the 141-day strike-lockout in Southern California still fresh in the minds of negotiators for both sides here, industry observers said the Northern California contract is likely to be settled more quickly and with less acrimony than in Southern California.
According to Jack Loveall, president of Local 588, based here, management negotiators are exhibiting a different attitude in Northern California. "In Southern California, the employers drew a line in the sand and demanded 'my way or the highway,"' he said in an advisory to his members.
"It is clear to us the employers want deep cuts in our contract. However, because of the bravery and sacrifice of the heroic Southern California members, the employers may not be as hard-nosed as they were before the strike [there, and] to date we have not been faced with a showdown mentality."
Industry analysts told SN they don't expect a labor walkout here.
Jonathan Ziegler, principal at PUPS Investment Management, Santa Barbara, Calif., sounded an optimistic note when he said, "I think things will go smoother in Northern California than they did in Southern California because Steve Burd [chairman, president and chief executive officer of Safeway] had his hands slapped by institutional investors after the strike and he might be more restrained this time around, so I don't think there will be any walkout there."
He also said he expects the Northern California contract to be settled before the Bay Area contract expires in two months, "but it will probably set a precedent or a starting point for the Bay Area talks," Ziegler noted.
Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, Richmond, Va., said he expects an amicable settlement. "From the general tone, I don't think either side is itching for a fight and both sides seem more willing to compromise and make sure things don't get out of hand, which means neither side is likely to dig in."
Gary Giblen, senior vice president and director of research for C L King Associates, New York, also said he expects an amicable settlement without a walkout. "I think talks will go to the eleventh hour or the contract will be extended and then it will get settled without a strike, most likely in the union's favor," he told SN.
Giblen said he believes the UFCW has been able to retain most of its existing benefits in most negotiations this year, including Southern California, while giving up relatively little, "with settlements tilting more than 60% the union's way."
In his advisory to Local 588 members, Loveall expressed his hope that an agreement can be achieved without a strike. "Withholding our labor is our last, final and most effective leverage," Loveall wrote. "However, if a labor dispute becomes unavoidable, our strategy is to be unpredictable and untraditional."
The key themes of the negotiations here are similar to those in Southern California and elsewhere in the U.S., Loveall said, encompassing health care, workplace protection and a two-tier wage and benefits system.
On health care, Loveall said the union is suggesting "creative cost-containment measures that can protect health care for current and future members." He also said the union is fighting hard to build a contract "that is free of the divisiveness of a two-tier system."
Loveall told SN last month he believes his members can get a better settlement than their counterparts in Southern California "because we're trying to do more creative things to avoid a cliffhanger situation, [and] we have a history here of managing settlements, not strikes."
Besides, the three major chains lost a lot of business in Southern California that has been slow to come back, he said, "and [they] don't want to take the risk of losing that kind of business in Northern California."
"But if they do," Loveall said, "it will be far worse for them because of the support we've been promised by the UFCW International all over the U.S. and Canada. So we're ready to rock and roll if it comes to that."