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Management and labor made separate proposals yesterday to jump start the negotiations in the four-month-old Southern California grocery strike/lockout, though the fact that they had completely different approaches to the matter suggests that they may be no closer than ever to solving the labor strife.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union made the first move, and suggested in a letter to the three chains - Safeway's Vons, Kroger's Ralphs, and Albertsons - that the whole dispute be submitted to binding arbitration, with the 70,000 affected employees returning immediately to work pending the arbitrator's decision about issues of compensation and health benefits.

"We believe strongly enough in the merit supporting our bargaining proposals that we are willing to put their fate in the hands of an objective, neutral party," the union wrote. "The time has come, in the best interest of your employees, our members, the community and your companies to end this dispute honorably and fairly. We believe our proposal to you provides the basis for achieving such a result."

The Los Angeles Times reported that "some national and local labor leaders were opposed to the tactic, thinking it could telegraph a sense of defeat on the UFCW's part."

However, it only took the chains a few hours to reject the proposal. In a joint statement, the companies said the offer was "just another effort to shift the focus away from the United Food and Commercial Workers' apparent inability to find a negotiated settlement to this labor dispute."

Furthermore, "Labor disputes are resolved by face-to-face negotiations with people familiar with the issues," the companies' statement said. "Only the parties to this labor dispute, engaged in active negotiation, can arrive at a reasonable solution that is mutually acceptable to both sides."

The chains did say that they were ready to the bargaining table and negotiate, with the help of a federal mediator, a new agreement with the union.

Union leaders had warned that their walkout would continue if the companies did not agree to binding arbitration.

However, management did suggest that the union leadership had not brought its most recent proposals to the rank and file. According to a statement released by the chains, the parties held secret negotiations in Denver on January 15 and 16 and came up with concrete proposals - but those proposals never were presented to striking and locked out union members.

These moves come as California Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed a federal antitrust suit against the three supermarket chains, alleging that they have violated antitrust laws by sharing their costs from a strike/lockout that is now almost four moths old and has affected some 70,000 employees.

The lawsuit charges the chains with keeping prices artificially high under their "mutual strike assistance agreement." Union officials said they hoped the suit would force the chains to return to the bargaining table. And if that didn’t work, there has been the promise of demonstrations in a dozen cities from Seattle to Baltimore, and a national boycott of the three chains.

Indeed, there's been significant pressure placed on management from a number of sources, including religious and civic leaders, as well as investment firms concerned about the long-term impact of the labor action on the companies' stock prices.
KC's View:
The immediate reaction here is that the union has blinked, that the strike/lockout has gone on too long and it needs to find a way to get its people back to work without eating too big a piece of humble pie. But that may not be possible if management follows what appears to be its path - to do as much as they can to wreck the union, believing that this is the only way to make themselves competitive with big box stores such as Wal-Mart.

We've tried to be fair about this, blaming both sides for the lack of progress and the inability to find an innovative solution. But we have to admit that the following phrase got our Irish up: ,,,"just another effort to shift the focus away from the United Food and Commercial Workers' apparent inability to find a negotiated settlement to this labor dispute."

Memo to management: you haven’t found a negotiated settlement, either. A negotiated settlement has to be found by both sides in such a dispute, not just dictated by one and accepted by another.

One of my kids takes a debating class in which they are asked to identify the sides of an issue that they would like to advocate…and then they are forced by the teacher to take the opposing view. The theory is that such an exercise forces a person to consider seriously the opinions, feelings and attitudes of the other side, which creates an open-minded and mature approach to issues.

It'd be nice if that sort of approach could be mandated in Southern California.