(Jan. 15) The vice is clamping down on union workers and grocery retailers involved in the Southern California strike that is nearing its fourth month.

Mediated and informal discussions have failed to produce an agreement between the union representing 70,000 Southern California grocery workers and three grocery chains. Reaching an agreeable contract continued at a snail’s pace in mid-January.

Representatives from Kroger-owned Ralphs, Albertson’s and Safeway had informal meetings with United Food and Commercial Worker’s union representatives on Jan. 8-9, said the Vons employee hotline.

The three-day informal meeting resulted in minor progress.

“The parties still remain apart on significant issues such as health care and wages,” a Safeway news release said.

Picket lines remain at Southern California retail locations.

The UFCW pulled picket lines from Ralphs and Albertson’s distribution centers in late December. On Jan. 13 lines were put back on Ralphs loading docks while picket lines continued at most Vons distribution centers, said Mickey Kasparian, UFCW Local 135 president, San Diego.

“The companies know the only way to get you back in the stores and get this deal done is for you to maintain your pension and health benefits,” said Kasparian to union members on the local’s daily negotiation hotline.

Workers are losing some of the benefits they are fighting for as the strike progresses, which started Oct. 11.

Health benefits for most striking and locked out employees ran out Dec. 31.

Whether benefits should extend is being arbitrated between the unions and the employers. A hearing has taken place and written arguments were due to the arbitrator on Jan. 12, according toVons. Reply briefs — response to arguments submitted — could be filed Jan. 19.

Once the briefing process is complete, the arbitrator will decide whether benefits should extend to employees beyond Dec. 31.

As of Jan. 15, no meetings had been scheduled between the parties.