(March 20) Three years after a four-month strike virtually paralyzed much of Southern California’s retail grocery business, the contract that ended that walkout has expired.

Both sides likely will avert the crippling struggle that affected nearly 70,000 workers in the region, said Ed Odron, a Stockton, Calif.-based produce marketing consultant.

“I think both sides learned the repercussions and all the problems of that in ’03,” Odron said, referring to the strike that shut down nearly 900 Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs, Safeway Inc.-owned Vons and Pavilion, and Albertson’s Inc. stores in Southern California from October 2003 through February 2004.

“I think they’re going to work it out,” Odron said. “Everybody is playing hardball, but neither side can afford a real issue like they had before. I’m sure they’re going to be flexing muscles and high-talking it, but I think sound minds will prevail.”

The deal that ended the strike in late February 2004 expired March 5.

Talks were ongoing March 14, according to various media reports. The companies involved — Supervalu Inc., which bought out Albertson’s last summer, is the new player in the negotiations this time around — and union officials aren’t divulging their progress in hammering out a new agreement.

The 2003-04 strike was the U.S. grocery industry’s longest work stoppage ever.

Seven locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union are involved in talks with the three chains.

“My guess is nobody wants to go through that again,” said Neil Stern, a senior partner at Chicago retail consultant McMillan/Doolittle LLP, when asked about the likelihood of another strike. “It was pretty painful for both sides.”

Company-paid health coverage has been a sticking point in the past. Odron said the union workers likely would have to give ground on that issue.

“Obviously, most industries, when you look at it, a lot of people are contributing to their health care these days, even where they weren’t before,” he said. “It’s just a way of life right now, and I think they’re just going to have to address some of those issues.”