The union representing 60,000 supermarket workers in Southern California is looking for a final offer from the stores that it can take to its members in early September.

The seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers and executives from Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions concluded four days of negotiations Sunday, Aug. 25. The union then posted a message on its websites saying membership meetings beginning on Sept. 9 will ask workers “to vote to accept or reject employers’ final offer.”

Five days of talks are scheduled to begin Wednesday, Sept. 4, moderated by a federal mediator.

Greg Conger, president of Local 324 in Orange County, said there was very little progress during the most recent sessions. After criticizing the stores’ previous offer of an additional five cents in wage increases, he said this time they “moved the nickel around,” shifting the offer from one year of the proposed three-year contract to another.

“We’re a long way from a deal, but the gap can be bridged quickly. The ball is definitely in their court,” Conger said. “The next round had better move the needle, or there’s going to be a couple of very unhappy companies.”

In June, the union’s members voted overwhelmingly to authorize its leaders to call a strike. A vote next month to reject the employers’ final offer could lead to the first grocery strike in Southern California in 15 years.

Last week John Votava, Ralphs’ director of corporate affairs, said his chain’s proposals would amount to a $108 million investment in wages, health care and pension contributions over a three-year period. He added that an additional nickel paid hourly to Ralphs 17,000 employees adds up $3.6 million during the run of the contract.

Votava said Ralphs and the other chains are under mounting pressure from non-union competitors. He cited a March report from research group Strategic Resource Partners that indicated market share for unionized groceries fell 10% in a six-year period in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and 15% in San Diego County.

The research was part of a confidential internal study and Votava said he could not share additional details.

Representatives of the other chains did not reply to requests for comment. They are all owned by Cerberus Capital Management, a New York hedge fund.

Ralphs, owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., is the only publicly traded firm involved in the labor negotiations and has been the target of much of the union’s criticism and public outreach. In recent months, store workers have held demonstrations, with pickets and leaflets that seek the support of shoppers. Most of them have been at Ralphs stores. Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s CEO, last year got a 19% pay raise, to $12 million per year.

Mike Shimpock, spokesman for Local 770, which covers Los Angeles County and the Central Coast, said members have held these gatherings at all 83 Ralphs stores in its jurisdiction, and Conger said the same strategy is being pursued in Orange County.

Burt Flickinger, an analyst for Strategic Resource Partners, said it was still too early to write off the negotiations because both sides recognize that a strike would be damaging.

“It’s still the proverbial jump ball,” Flickinger said. “But the fact that negotiations are still going on means there is some constructive bargaining.”

Source: The Press-Enterprise