After a week of strike talk and increasing bitterness, Northern California supermarket workers have called in a strategist from their union's international headquarters to help with stalled contract negotiations.
William McDonough, director of bargaining for the United Food and Commercial Workers, came to the Bay Area on Monday at the invitation of the three UFCW locals in Northern California.
Union officials and labor experts said it's common to bring in reinforcements when negotiations aren't going well. The Northern California supermarket talks have dragged on since last fall.
"This is getting late in the game in the bargaining, so it's not unusual," said Mike Henneberry, a spokesman for UFCW Local 5 in San Jose. He said McDonough helped the union obtain a new contract in Southern California last fall after eight months of negotiations.
McDonough's arrival in Northern California followed one of the most difficult weeks yet in the contract talks.
First, Raley's workers voted to authorize a strike against the West Sacramento grocery chain. Then, a three-hour bargaining session Friday ended with the UFCW and Raley's seemingly farther apart than ever.
The company said the union's latest demands would have inflated Raley's labor costs by $20 million a year. The union accused Raley's of making "a sinister attempt to undermine their workforce."
Save Mart, meanwhile, gave the union its "last, best and final" contract offer last week a kind of ultimatum that served to escalate tensions. UFCW leaders quickly rejected the proposal and said they would begin scheduling strike votes.
For now, anyway, talks are continuing. The UFCW said it's scheduled to meet with Save Mart today in an effort to head off a walkout.
As for Raley's, the federal mediator who's been overseeing those talks was expected to contact both sides this week in an effort to revive negotiations. Raley's spokesman John Segale said the company will meet only if the union has a new contract proposal.
The third union grocer, Safeway Inc., has so far stayed above the fray and hasn't been threatened with a walkout. Talks with Safeway "are difficult and complex, but they are civil and are progressing slowly," according to a statement posted online by Roseville's UFCW Local 8.
All three employers are pressing the UFCW for concessions on health care and other issues. They say they need lower labor costs to regain market share that's been lost in recent years to nonunion stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Fresh & Easy.
Union leaders have said they're willing to make concessions but contend the companies are pushing too far. Employees continue to work under terms of the old contracts.
The situation at Raley's might be the most dire or at least the most acrimonious. The company said the union made "an outrageous contract offer" Friday that included employee bonuses and increased health care spending.
Raley's added that the UFCW demanded "full authority to develop a new contract agreement." Raley's rejected that, too.
The debate continued Monday, with the union saying Raley's misrepresented the UFCW's proposal.
Jacques Loveall, president of Local 8, said the union offered to work with Raley's to craft "a realistic budget" for labor costs. Once that was done, the union would then "use its expertise" to develop a wage and benefits package, he said.
With the two sides in obvious conflict, the intervention of the UFCW's international bargaining director might help get talks back on track, said UCLA labor expert Kent Wong.
The director could help resolve "conflicts that may seem insurmountable from a local perspective," said Wong, director of the school's Center for Labor Research and Education.