Contract talks between Southern California's major supermarket chains and the union representing their workers have sputtered, raising the possibility of a repeat of the region's crippling grocery strike of 2003-2004, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Representatives of both the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the three chains -- Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons -- said yesterday that it was unlikely the two sides would make a union-imposed deadline of Thursday to agree on a new contract that the union would recommend to its members. The union, which represents more than 60,000 employees in the area, imposed the deadline earlier this month because it was frustrated by the pace of negotiations.

Mike Shimpock, a union spokesman, said if there is no pact by midday Thursday, the union would ask workers to vote Sunday on the companies' most recent proposal on the table. In addition, workers at two of the chains -- Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway Inc.'s Vons -- would vote on whether to authorize a strike. Union members at Supervalu Inc.'s Albertsons already have voted to allow a strike if union leaders call for one. A strike-authorization vote requires a two-thirds majority; contract approval requires a simple majority.

If union leaders decided to strike, it wouldn't happen immediately. Either side must give 72 hours' notice of its intent to cancel the existing contract and begin a strike or a lockout. The current contract, which settled the four-month strike and lockout of about four years ago, expired March 5 but has been extended pending negotiations.

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