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California supermarket workers to vote on strike

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Unions representing 65,000 workers at three Southern California supermarket chains asked members to authorize a strike after contract talks broke down on Thursday, raising the possibility of a repeat of 2003’s crippling stoppage.

Union spokesman Mike Shimpock said members at Safeway Inc.’s Vons and Pavilions units and Kroger Co.’s Ralphs chain, will begin voting on Sunday. Workers at Supervalu Inc.’s Albertsons stores authorized a strike in March.

“It authorizes the leadership and the negotiators to call a strike if and when they reach an impasse,” Shimpock said in a conference call.

The workers at the three mainstays of California’s grocery industry are represented by seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. In 2003, failed talks between the union and the chains led to the longest strike in U.S. grocery history, costing more than $1 billion in lost sales.

Shimpock said the chains failed to put an acceptable contract proposal on the table by a deadline the union set two weeks ago of midday Thursday. Health care and wage increases are the main sticking points.

“We had given the employers two weeks to finish a deal and to give us a comprehensive offer that our members could vote on, on Sunday, up or down,” Shimpock said. “The employers failed to do that.”

The supermarket chains said they expected the union’s action after setting what they called an “artificial and arbitrary deadline.”

“It is not surprising to us that they are saying that, but the truth is that the only place negotiations can get done is at the bargaining table,” Adena Tessler, spokeswoman for the supermarket chains, told Reuters.

In a statement, the grocery chains accused the union of holding up negotiations by diverting attention away from the bargaining table.

“If the unions persist with this meaningless vote before a last, best and final offer has been made, we believe our employees should vote against granting their union leaders the authority to call a strike,” the statement said.

Grocers and the union have been negotiating for six months and the original contract expired more than 100 days ago.

“The negotiations were stuttering and now they’re completely stalled,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor and the global economy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The vote on Sunday is meant to restart the negotiations in a serious way.”

Results of the strike vote are expected by noon Monday, though a work stoppage could not occur until 72 hours after either side cancels the contract.

Two-thirds of workers that turn out for the election need to vote for the strike in order for it to be authorized.

“A strike is the very last option for us,” Shimpock said. “No one wants to go on strike, but we really have no other choice.”

In Texas, contract talks between Kroger and the union continue in Dallas and Houston. On Thursday, the union there held a news conference to call attention to what it says is Kroger’s attack on workers’ health care.