The big supermarket chains and union officials have started talks on a new labor contract. If those early contacts have been the appetizers, the players will sit down to the main course Monday, when Southern California's biggest grocery union local meets with Ralphs Grocery Co.

Healthcare benefits will be the central issue, just as they were in late 2003, when contract talks disintegrated into a 4 1/2 -month strike and lockout. The contract hammered out at the end of that dispute covers about 65,000 workers at the Albertsons, Ralphs and VonsPavilions chains. It expires March 5.

The outcome of negotiations for a new contract will affect thousands of workers like Caine Levine, who gets paid $7.55 an hour to work the deli and meat counters at the Albertsons on Hillhurst Avenue in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles.

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