(Oct. 13) 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 within a few days.

But the largest walkout — involving 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.

A similar walkout had entered its second week in St. Louis, and 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.

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.

Kroger said the stores were to be closed at midnight Oct. 13 and would not reopen for the duration of the strike.

REDUCED HOURS

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 broke down. The previous contract expired Oct. 5.

The union, which has a nationwide membership of about 1.4 million, was accusing the retailers of trying to cut employee health-care benefits by about half. The union also said that 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 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 current situation appeared dim, with no new talks scheduled as of Oct. 13.

EFFECT ON PRODUCE TERMINAL

“I think, for us, honestly speaking, it’s going to be better for the wholesalers, because a lot of the people who are supplying (the stores) are supporting the street,” said Jesse Martin, president of Value Produce Inc., a wholesale operation on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, the city’s largest terminal market. “Some of the stores are buying directly from some of the suppliers. I understand that management is driving some of the trucks across the picket lines.”

Traffic on the market was normal, Martin said.

“We’ve seen a fair day for a Monday,” he said. “We didn’t see any real difference.”

Jeff Miller, a partner in Westlake-Miller, Brooks & Sims Inc., Los Angeles, said the strike affected his company almost immediately.

“We’re having fewer orders than we’ve had,” he said. “Some of the guys that are on strike seem to be backing off on some of their orders. But the stores that do not have the strike seem to be increasing their business. So the strike is having an effect. The strike seems to be working. It’s more difficult for us to get our product delivered, and it’s also noticeably slower.”