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Southern California Grocery Strike Averted: Workers Approve Deal

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Grocery workers count ballots at the union headquarters in Buena Park, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011. | AP

LOS ANGELES — Southern California grocery employees have voted to ratify a new contract with supermarket chains, bringing an end to months of conflict and averting a strike that could have crippled the industry and left shoppers scrambling.

United Food and Commercial Workers local spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said Saturday that after two days of voting, members agreed to the deal as their leaders had urged.

Union officials say the agreement – reached with the region's three major grocery chains after a strike deadline had passed Monday – addresses concerns about funding for the employees' health plan, the main sticking point during the months of negotiations.

The union did not release the vote totals.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Shoppers in Southern California waited Saturday for word on whether major grocery stores would remain open, as a final wave of supermarket employees voted on a deal with grocers to stave off a strike.

It was the second day of voting on a deal that union leaders negotiated this week with the region's three largest grocery chains, Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons. They urged their rank-and-file to ratify the plan, which they said addressed concerns about funding for the employees' health plan, the main sticking point during months of negotiations.

The supermarkets, meanwhile, said the agreement would allow them to remain competitive.

Polls were being kept open for two extra hours, until 8 p.m., so that members of United Food and Commercial Workers who want to vote would have the chance, union spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said. Union officials would be quick to tally votes, but it was not clear how long that would take, she said.

Details of the tentative agreement reached Monday were made available to members for the first time as they filed into their union locals' headquarters or other voting locations to cast their ballots on Friday and Saturday.

"I think they will be elated with the end result, and I believe they will vote in overwhelming numbers to ratify it," said Greg Conger, president of Local 324, one of the locals representing 62,000 grocery employees who have been working without a contract since March.

If ratified, the deal would end months of sometimes testy discussions between union officials and representatives of The Vons Cos.; Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.; and Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu Inc.

Ralphs had indicated it would initially close all 250 of its stores if there had been a strike; Albertsons had said it could shutter up to 100 locations, while Vons had said its stores would remain open.

The prospect of shuttered stores and tense picket lines prompted fears of a repeat of the four-month strike eight years ago that cost the industry $2 billion and created a mess for shoppers.

This time around, with unemployment at 12.1 percent in California, workers evidently feared that they would find little public sympathy if they voluntarily walked off the job.

The market chains, meanwhile, were likely reluctant to invite shutdowns and picket lines that might alienate shoppers already spending less due to the economic downturn.

Union leaders and the markets announced in July that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but remained far apart on payments to the union health care trust fund.

Union members voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize their leaders to call a strike. Those leaders said they were responding to what they characterized as the chains' delaying tactics when they issued the required 72-hour notice Thursday evening to cancel the contract extension under which they had been working since March.

But after the Sunday evening deadline came and went with neither a strike nor a deal, store employees returned to work. Union officials announced late Monday morning that the tentative deal had been reached.

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