(Oct. 17) LOS ANGELES — Three of the largest supermarket chains in Southern California were scrambling to hire replacements for tens of thousands of workers who went on strike Oct. 11 over health-care coverage.

It was the latest in a series of walkouts that hit retail grocery markets across the country in mid-October.

But the largest walkout — about 70,000 employees — occurred in the Los Angeles basin.

How officials at the affected chains — Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs and Pavilions, Safeway Inc.’s Vons and Albertsons Inc. — handle the walkout could affect the outcome of negotiations in other major retail markets across the country.

As of Oct. 15, all three chains had kept their Southern California stores open, but hours and some services had been curtailed.

On Oct. 14, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the union representing the strikers, filed a $600 million suit against Albertsons and Kroger that accuses the stores of illegally locking out about 49,000 employees.

A similar walkout had entered its second week in St. Louis, while, on Oct. 13, union employees at 44 Kroger stores in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, voted to go on strike.

More than 2,000 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 approved the strike at a meeting in Charleston, W.Va.

The union represents about 3,300 workers for the Cincinnati-based chain in 37 stores in West Virginia, five in Ohio and two in Kentucky. The Ohio stores are in Belpre, Gallipolis, Marietta, Pomeroy and Proctorville.

The Kroger stores closed at midnight Oct. 13 and were not scheduled to reopen until the strike was over.

In Los Angeles and St. Louis, affected stores were operating under abbreviated hours.

In Los Angeles, workers voted to strike Oct. 11 after negotiations for a new contract — the old one expired Oct. 5 — broke down.

The union, which has a nationwide membership of about 1.4 million, accused the retailers of trying to cut employee health-care benefits by about half. The union also said the grocers had not negotiated in good faith.

The affected chains control about 60% of the region’s retail grocery business.

The companies want the workers to take on a larger share of the cost for health coverage — $5 per week per worker or $15 per week per family — to enable the chains to compete with nonunion rivals like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The union wants to maintain the status quo in health coverage, plus raises for employees.

“Our proposal fairly and reasonably addresses two important business realities,” John Burgon, Ralphs president, said in a news release. “Health-care and pension costs are skyrocketing and the competitive landscape has changed in Southern California.”

Dave Simonson, president of Albertsons’ Southern California division, said, “The unions have not made a meaningful or reasonable response to the companies’ comprehensive proposal.”

The last such walkout in Los Angeles, in 1978, lasted about a week.

Prospects for a quick resolution to the situation appeared dim, with no new talks scheduled as of Oct. 13.

Strike curtails L.A. retail operations
A striker pickets a Vons store in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Oct. 14. About 70,000 employees in the Los Angeles basin staged a walkout, affecting Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs and Pavilions, Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Albertsons Inc. stores. As of Oct. 15, all three chains had kept their Southern California stores open, but hours and some services had been curtailed.