A contract covering some 70,000 supermarket workers in Southern California is set to expire in a few days. So far talks aimed at reaching a new contract have made little progress. Three years ago, when these two sides failed to reach an agreement, it led to a bitter four and a half month strike and lockout.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the contract that finally ended that strike changed the structure of the supermarket workforce.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Memories of the strike and lockout three years ago are still fresh and painful, for supermarket companies, the union, and for shoppers like Catherine Garcia(ph).

CATHERINE GARCIA: It was really miserable. Things didn't get put on the shelves; they were out of things. No one knew where anything was.

HORSLEY: That last strike dragged on for 20 weeks, draining union coffers and costing Southern California's three big supermarket chains - Ralph's, Vons and Albertsons - an estimated 2$ billion dollars. When it finally ended, the union settled for an agreement that protected wages and benefits of existing workers, but offered less generous terms to new hires. Ricky Casa(ph), who heads the grocery union in Los Angeles, said this time around workers want to scrap that two-tiered system.

RICKY CASA: There's a very divisive system that exists right now where people work side by side at lesser rates than the people that were there prior to strike. There's a lot of resentment and the morale is really down.

HORSLEY: Supermarket spokeswoman Adena Tessler counters that the two-tiered system is a creative way for grocers to control expenses, while still providing veteran workers and their families with health insurance at no cost.

ADENA TESSLER: The unions wanted to be able to maintain those rich benefits for their longtime workers. and at the same time to manage the skyrocketing cost of health care that we're all dealing with nationally right now they needed to put in place another set of benefits for the newer employees.

HORSLEY: One result of that two-tiered contract is those newer employees, who receive lower pay and less generous health benefits, don't stick around as long. Ken Jacobs of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research says turnover in Los Angeles stores jumped by about 70 percent once the new contract took effect. There are also more teenaged workers and part-timers.

KEN JACOBS: The main grocery companies have apparently decided that in order to compete in the market today against the Wal-Mart super-centers, that's a direction they're willing to go.

HORSLEY: Higher turnover does mean more training costs, and perhaps inferior service. Some smaller chains were so concerned about that, they've parted company with the big three and signed their own contracts this time, paying newer workers more like veterans. But shopper Mike Trecaso(ph) says employee turnover is not a big issue for him, as he loads cans of on-sale soup in the trunk of his car outside a Vons store.

MIKE TRECASOS: They do have some employees at this Vons that have been there long time. I know that. And there's a lot of new faces as well. I guess more new faces than old faces. That doesn't concern me personally. I'm always concerned when people aren't getting paid enough for the job they're doing, of course. But I'm very price conscious.

HORSLEY: The supermarket chains say they're not concerned about Monday's deadline, noting that in many other parts of the country talks have continued for months after a contract expires. The union is more anxious to get a deal in place. Union officials point out that contracts in Northern California and Seattle are also coming due in the next six months.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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