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Grocery Workers Could Strike On Sunday

Picket lines could be up at the region's three largest grocery chains as soon as tomorrow night. On Thursday the union gave Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs officials a 72 hour strike notice. The sticking point is health-care benefits.

Union checkers, baggers and butchers have been working since March under the terms of an expired contract. The United Food and Commercial Workers agreed to work under the terms of the old contract while talks moved forward. Local 135 president Mickey Kasparian says there just isn't enough movement toward a deal.

"We know that no one, the supermarket chains, the workers, and the community, no one wants a strike," Kasparian said.

He said union workers voted to authorize a strike in April and again last month. Neither action created the kind of movement at the bargaining table that union officials were hoping for.

"So we've been methodical and patient. But I have to say the time has come. The employers have not moved off their health and welfare, health benefit proposal and its time for us to take this stand and protect our member's health benefits."

Kasparian said union officials don't feel like the stores are willing to put enough money in the health benefit trust fund. He says the union has been paying to keep the fund solvent since March. It is a cost the unions can't pay indefinitely.

Albertsons spokeswoman Christie Ly says the grocery chains remain hopeful that a solution can be reached before the deadline passes. She said most Albertsons will stay open if picket lines go up; but the chain reported late Friday that about 100 stores in the region will close, at least temporarily.

"We have a responsibilities to our customers and the communities in which we operate so we certainly intend to operate our stores in the event of a labor dispute. And I can tell you, as part of that contingency plan, last, late August we placed signs in our Albertsons stores advertizing for temporary replacement workers."

Ly says the stores are only taking applications and they would not say how many they've received. Ralph's officials say they'll close their stores if there's a work stoppage, and will evaluate the situation as it moves forward.

Union workers struck and were locked out in 2003 in a dispute over health benefits and a two tier wage plan. That five month dispute was bruising for both sides. Union workers made contract concessions and the stores lost business and market share. San Diego State University professor Miro Copic says the economy makes a strike even more challenging this time.

"With a 12 percent unemployment rate in the state and 10 percent in San Diego there's a lot of people that would love these jobs," Copic said. "They pay relatively well. You don't have to be a college graduate to be in these jobs. And the relative work environment is much more pleasant than say construction or other industries that are much more challenging."

Copic said Southern California is an expensive place to live and that makes it difficult for workers to carry a growing share of their health care costs. He said the supermarket chains are also struggling with shrinking profit margins in an increasingly competitive market.

Both sides say there's a chance to avoid a strike and they are meeting with a federal mediator in Los Angeles.

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