(Nov. 26) The Southern California-based struggle over health-care coverage for grocery workers recently took a step further when thousands of Teamster union members joined United Food and Commercial Worker picket lines.

On Nov. 24 the food workers extended picket lines to the nine distribution centers that feed Southern California’s Kroger Co.’s Ralphs, Albertsons and Safeway Inc.’s Vons, said the Team-ster’s hot line for local 952.
Greg Denier, spokesman for the food workers union, said that as of Nov. 25 3,000 to 4,000 Teamster members joined the strike efforts by pulling member drivers and warehouse workers from the retailers’ distribution centers.
The union’s expanded picketing lines came shortly after mediated discussions were re-cessed.

Peter Hurtgen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Washington D.C., declared the recess to discussions between the retail grocery chains and the food workers on Nov. 24, said conciliation service spokesman John Arnold.

Both parties participated in two days of talks in Southern California.

“Discussions will resume after the director makes a determination when it is fruitful to get both parties back to the table,” Arnold said. “The director will contact the parties during the recess period and (decide) when to get back together, based on their feedback.”

Negotiating parties volunteered to meet with the federal mediator after Hurtgen offered his services to help them reach an agreement, Arnold said. Informational pickets continued throughout central and Northern California, along with Washington, said Denier.

No details were available about negotiations because Hurtgen asked food workers union representatives and the supermarket chains to refrain from providing details of the talks to the news media.

Vons said stores will be properly supplied and remain open.

Retailers claim the striking workers’ focus is on the wrong entity.
“The UFCW has turned its fury on the unionized companies that have been the union’s bread and butter,” said a Nov. 20 press release from Safeway, “instead of focusing attention on unionizing Wal-Mart and creating a more competitive environment for union grocers.”

Wal-Mart is not a union store, and the food workers union said it has been trying to change just that.

“We are working to form a union within Wal-Mart,” Denier said. “We are not doing that on behalf of the supermarkets but for the Wal-Mart associates, and that is just not relevant to this strike.”

Denier said Wal-Mart holds about 1% of the grocery market while Kroger and Safeway control 60% of the market in Southern California.