Giant and strikers sit down and talk But they are unable to find compromise on the central issue

December 31, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

After being pushed to the table by the store clerks' union, Giant Food Inc. and its striking truck drivers yesterday had their first serious negotiations in the 15-day-old walkout.

The two sides apparently cleared up some of the smaller issues, including wages and benefits, but they did not find a compromise on the most contentious issue: the use of wholesale distributors.

"I think there has been movement on both sides," said Buddy Mays, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27, who sat in on the negotiations.

"They didn't resolve it; they got very close," Mays said. "The last issue on the table was the out-sourcing. It seemed like they wanted to reach a conclusion."

Both Giant and union representatives said last night that they had made concessions.

No negotiating session was scheduled for today, but state mediators said last night that they would be talking with both sides today.

Even as negotiators were at the table yesterday, Teamsters Local 639, representing 320 striking drivers, released a videotape that it said shows the company transporting meat in an unrefrigerated pickup truck yesterday from the Giant at 110 Stemmers Run Road in Essex to a store three miles away.

Barry Scher, a Giant vice president and company spokesman, acknowledged the incident last night. "This was an error. She [the store manager] should not have done this," Scher said.

Scher said the health department has given the supermarket permission to transport meat unrefrigerated if the temperature is below 45 degrees and the transport takes less than an hour. He said the meat was tested at the store that received it and that it was "fine."

From the beginning of the strike, it appeared clear that the people who wielded the power were the store clerks -- some 20,000 strong -- according to analysts and labor lawyers.

If they went out in large numbers to support the striking Teamsters, they could close down Giant, or at least severely interrupt business. And if they continued to work, the walkout by the Teamsters would have only limited effect and Giant stores would be able to remain open.

So the United Food and Commercial Workers Locals 27 and 400, who represent all of Giant's store workers, used their clout to twist arms on both sides to get them to go to the bargaining table.

Mays and Jim Lothers, secretary-treasurer of Local 400, talked with the Teamsters Friday and persuaded both sides to begin negotiations yesterday. Mays said he and Lothers met with Giant officials at 9: 30 a.m. The two sides talked from 11 a.m. until the late afternoon, when the company took a break to respond to a union proposal.

The negotiations began just after both sides had increased the stakes over the weekend. "It is a tough time," Mays said. "It is starting to get hardball. If this doesn't work today, then I see it getting worse."

First, the Teamsters of Local 639 set up picket lines around Supervalu, a wholesale distributor that was supplying Giant stores during the strike. The union hoped to slow supplies because the Supervalu drivers were also Teamsters, although from a different local. But the move was unsuccessful because Local 639 had not received the proper authorization from the local there.

On the other side, Giant's management published a full-page advertisement in Sunday's editions of The Sun listing the wages of the 20 most highly paid truck drivers -- ranging from $80,985 to $68,952. The ad then asked: "Excellent Wages, Excellent Benefits, Plus Job Security. What is the Problem?"

The union said the company has failed to point out that in order to earn those wages most drivers work long hours and six days a week.

The central issue in the strike has not been pay but out-sourcing -- the use of wholesale food distributors to get products to a grocery store. Normally, 90 percent of the food is hauled to Giant's 174 stores by Teamster truck drivers. But the company, which plans to expand into Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey in the next several years, wants the freedom to hire wholesale food distributors to deliver the food directly to the stores bypassing the warehouse.

The Teamsters see that practice as limiting their futures and their clout as a union. Even with job guarantees, the union can imagine a time when it is outnumbered by nonunion truck drivers who drive for wholesale distributors.

Giant says it wants the freedom to operate its business in the most efficient way.

John Singleton, a Baltimore labor lawyer, said he believed that the UFCW had some "very smart, creative" union leaders who understood the position of the Teamsters, but got along better with Giant management than the Teamsters.

Both sides said they were in general agreement on the issues of money and benefits. Scher said Giant offered a $800-a-year bonus in lieu of a pay raise and improved pension benefits.

"Out-sourcing is still the stumbling block," said Ron Lewis, a truck driver and member of Local 639's strike committee.

Scher said Giant also had offered to use wholesale food distributors that employed union truck drivers if they weren't more expensive than a nonunion wholesale food distributor.

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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