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    Strike Talks Collapse; Supermarkets Turn Down Union Health Cost Offer

    SAN DIEGO - Negotiations in the Southern California grocery worker strike and lockout broke off Friday night after a 12-hour session, local newspapers report. Federal mediation chief Peter Hurtgen said the talks had been "recessed indefinitely," a term not used before during the strike, which began Oct. 11.

    SAN DIEGO - Negotiations in the Southern California grocery clerk strike and lockout broke off Friday night after a 12-hour session, local newspapers report. Federal mediation chief Peter Hurtgen said the talks had been "recessed indefinitely," a term not used before during the strike, which began Oct. 11.

    The decision to stop the talks was made after negotiators for both sides told Hurtgen they saw no point in going on, according to an announcement by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Hurtgen said that the parties are not likely to return to the table this year, but added that he would remain in contact with both sides and would ask them to negotiate "when I determine that it may be productive to do so."

    The United Food and Commercial Workers Union offered a proposal deemed "comprehensive" by union spokeswoman Ellen Anreder, who said the union's offer was designed to save Vons, Ralphs, and Albertson's "hundreds of millions of dollars a year through major cost containment measures." The supermarkets had earlier criticized the union for not offering an alternative to the chains' proposals.

    According to Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil, the latest contract offer, presented Dec. 2, contained an offer to meet the union's main sticking point, a reduction of health care benefits. O'Neil said the supermarkets proposed Dec. 2 "to fund the trust at a substantial level." The union's proposal on Friday called instead for the maintenance-of-benefits model to be continued.

    The union proposal additionally called for pay increases of 30 cents per hour at once, and 35 cents per hour in 2004 and 2005. That would result in a raise of approximately 2 percent for the average grocery clerk. The employers had instead offered a 30-cent-per-hour bonus, which would pay each clerk already employed at a supermarket 30 cents for each hour worked during the previous year. It would also result in a 2 percent boost in pay, but only once. The clerks would not receive an increase in their base pay.

    As a goodwill gesture at the beginning of the Friday talks, the union announced that it would discontinue the picket lines in front of the chains' regional distribution centers, allowing about 8,000 Teamsters to resume making deliveries. Anreder did not rule out the possibility that picketers could return to distribution centers, however, and Teamsters president James Hoffa released a statement saying that the union would keep honoring picket lines at retail outlets because "the UFCW's fight is our fight."

    Analysts expect the union to make more concessions as the supermarkets insist on going ahead with plans to cut rocketing health care costs and institute a two-tier pay and benefits system for new employees. Other factors that could shake striking employees' resolve are that union workers' health benefits are due to expire at month's end, and that the San Diego UFCW local has slashed weekly strike pay to $100 maximum from $300 maximum, and several other locals may do the same.

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