updated 10/30/2003 2:02:51 PM ET 2003-10-30T19:02:51

Three major supermarket chains hired replacement workers to keep their stores open Sunday as thousands of striking grocery workers picketed outside.

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Clerks at Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Pavilions, Safeway Inc.’s Vons, and Albertsons grocery stores went on strike late Saturday after negotiations between union representatives and store officials broke off, with health care coverage a key sticking point.

In all, more than 850 supermarkets and about 70,000 union workers at those stores were affected by the strike.

Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers union initially said strikers would only target Vons and urged the companies not to lock out workers from the other stores. Picket lines appeared at Ralphs and Albertsons after the chains said a strike against one company would be considered a strike against all three and began locking out employees.

The grocery chains began training temporary workers up to two weeks before talks ended and hired replacements soon after the strike and lock out started. The chains control nearly 60 percent of the Southern California market.

Supermarket representatives also said workers from stores outside the region were brought in, but did not say whether additional replacement workers would be needed. The strike also forced some stores to scale back their hours.

“We expect as each day passes that business will return to normal,” said Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neil.

Officials on both sides did not expect negotiations to resume in the immediate future.

The companies want the workers to take on a larger share of the cost for health benefits, citing a sluggish economy, rising health care costs and increased competition from nonunion rivals such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The proposal does not call for wage reductions, but asks employees to pay $5 a week for individual health care coverage and $10 to $15 a week for families, Vons president Tom Keller said.

The union wants the companies to maintain health care plans and provide raises of 50 cents an hour the first year and 45 cents an hour the following two years.

Grocery workers last went on strike was 1978, with the walkout lasting less than a week.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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