LOS ANGELES -- The United Food and Commercial Workers Union said last week it has scheduled a summit meeting here tomorrow with leaders of hundreds of locals from across the United States and Canada to discuss long-term strategies to save health care coverage for employees at Albertsons, Kroger and Safeway -- the first such gathering of its kind ever, union sources told SN.
The summit will occur a week after a third round of negotiations between seven UFCW locals and the three employers ended inconclusively.
Union sources said the strategies coming out of the summit meeting could include expanding informational picket lines beyond Safeway to Albertsons and Kroger stores outside of Southern California, and moving pickets to distribution centers operated by the three chains in other areas.
According to Greg Denier, UFCW communications director, "Heath care is too important an issue to lose on because if the employers succeed in Southern California, then they will clearly make an effort to do the same across the country and try to eliminate health care benefits everywhere, and it would throw the employer-based system into a tailspin if three of the largest [food retailing] corporations in the U.S. can effectively eliminate health care benefits.
"So the fight in Southern California is a fight to save heath care benefits in the workplace across America."
Ellen Anreder, a UFCW spokeswoman, told SN the summit will attempt to mobilize the financial and physical strengths and resources of the union's 1.4-million members. "Our goal is not to try to force the employers to their knees, but just to their senses," she said.
Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Orange County here, said the idea for the summit evolved "because unions all over are watching what happens here in Southern California as they continue to see the Wal-Martization of our country. It's unconscionable for employers to gut the contracts in fear of supercenters, and demand that we go down to the level of Wal-Mart's employees rather than helping to bring others up.
"We think all three majors can compete against supercenters because they have such a strong hold on their existing customer bases, which is why we're getting such strong consumer support."
Health care coverage is the primary issue in the Southern California dispute.
In a joint statement last week, the three chains said they are no longer willing to absorb all costs related to maintaining health care benefits. They also noted that current employees "would continue to enjoy one of the most generous pension benefits in the nation under the companies' proposal ... while better positioning the companies to face the enormous challenges of the changing competitive landscape."
The latest round of negotiations, conducted for six days under the guidance of Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, broke off last week with no progress reported and no further sessions scheduled. As a result, the strike-lockout here was expected to move into its 10th week yesterday, making it the fourth-longest UFCW strike in industry history -- surpassed by a 14-week strike in Hawaii in 1983, an 11.5-week strike in Seattle in 1989, and an 11-week strike in Las Vegas in 1983.
Following the end of talks last week, the employers said in their joint statement they had presented "a revised, comprehensive offer" to the union, "[but] the companies have still not received a comprehensive offer, in any form, from the union."
For its part, the union said the parties "remain far apart on all key issues involved in the dispute."
According to Conger, the union proposed "making various [medical] co-payments that would have saved the employers tens of millions of dollars in health care costs -- the first time in years the UFCW has offered to make substantial cuts in health payments -- but the employers told us no on each proposal.
"As a result, we believe the employers walked away from the table with the deliberate intent of punishing the members [by letting the dispute continue] through the holidays."