A federal mediator has been asked to help move along contract talks between Southern California’s three major supermarket chains and the union that represents most of the workers in their stores.

Leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers met with representatives from Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs for two days this week. A union negotiator said some progress has been made, but the two sides are far from an agreement on the major issues of wages and benefits.

UFCW represents about 60,000 supermarket workers across Southern California, running from the Central Valley to the Mexican border.

The lack of significant progress in the negotiations led to an agreement to reach out to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a federal agency that provides facilitators trained to bring labor and management together when talks move slowly.

Also, in some parts of Southern California union members are planning to demonstrate in front of stores to rally public support as the failed negotiations continue. These actions will start in the middle of this month, said Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for UFCW Local 770, which represents Los Angeles-area workers.

Local 324, representing workers in Orange County, will also have demonstrators in front of stores.

“Community engagement is always part of every campaign,” said Shimpock. “We want to engage the shoppers, and this is the next step.”

Representatives of the three chains did not respond to requests for comment.

Shimpock said he was encouraged by the request for federal mediation and said the head mediator is the same person who helped UFCW and the stores settle the last six contract negotiations, including the bitter lockout and strike that crippled the region’s grocery business in 2003 and 2004.

Joe Duffle, president of Local 1167, which represents Inland Empire workers, said turning to the mediator was a decision that both sides reached jointly.

“In my opinion, this is a good thing, it moves us in a positive direction,” Duffle said. “We’re at a point where we had to bring in a mediator and get down to it.”

The talks between the stores and the union began on March 4, a day after the contract expired. Since then there have been only six face-to-face sessions, with two scheduled every other week.

That led to some agitation on the union’s part, as its leaders accused the employers of purposely moving too slowly.

The next negotiation rounds have been scheduled for April 18 and 19, and if necessary on May 3, 6, 22, 23 and 24, according to Local 1167’s website.

Source: The Press-Enterprise