I've been watching with interest the battle heating up between Acme and the United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 1776. On June 9, Acme presented its "last, best offer" to the union's 4,500 supermarket workers in southeastern Pennsylvania. This "last, best" is a legal term. It essentially means take it or leave it. There's no more opportunity for bargaining and Acme has said so in a letter to the union. Both sides accuse the other of unresponsive bargaining and delays, which gives me comfort because it probably means that no one is more at fault in that regard than the other.

Acme's supermarket clerks have been working on a contract extension since Feb. 2008. They have until July 10 to vote on the offer.

So how does the recession play into this? Perhaps the company thinks that this is the best time to play hard ball because everyone knows times are tough and jobs are scarce, so it'll be a good time to extract changes in benefits or impose working conditions that would eliminate union jobs. Perhaps the union thinks this is the best time to play hard ball because with times being tough, no company can afford any kind of stoppage and even the possibility of one isn't pretty.

Acme has kicked the public relations battle into high gear. It is sending all sorts of mailings to employees. Instead of standard supermarket advertising that talks about low prices for boneless breasts of chicken, there are advertisements touting Acme as a great place to work. Acme's chief executive made a visit to the newspaper and the company has just now joined the Inquirer's food drive as a partner. Why? Acme could have its own food drive. Heck, all the food is right there in its stores. But it is nice to get someone with access to ink to be co-sponsor. Maybe Local 1776 could also partner with the Inquirer in its food drive. With all these partners,we'd get to feed more poor people, and that's a good thing.

There's all sorts of talk about wages and benefits. That's a lot of rhetoric, but eventually that gets split somewhere in the middle. It's like watching a ballet, although nowhere near as pretty.

I'm betting both sides are dueling the hardest over the leased-space issue. Acme wants to be able to lease up to 8,000 square feet of space to outside vendors to run, for example, the meat department, where union butchers, who are well-trained in a trade, probably earn more than union stock clerks. With leased departments, especially high-end departments, vendors could bring in non-union workers and the union would, overall, have less clout in the store, diminishing its power to negotiate decent wages and benefits in future negotiations.

Acme,  of course, has access to dollars to buy public relations. The clerks and cashiers in the supermarket don't have the cash personally, but they have something management doesn't have. That's daily contact with an important influencer in this deal -- the customer who is actually spending money at the store, sometimes shopping on a daily basis. One of my biggest beefs in any store is a cashier or clerk who can't say "hello" or "thank you." In this public relations war, those little niceties, which cost nothing, will be priceless.