Negotiations on a new labor contract for Southern California supermarket workers, abruptly halted Tuesday, are expected to resume next week amid a dispute over health benefits, the Los Angeles Times.

"We want to get back to the table," said Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 770 in Los Angeles.

Both sides said Wednesday that they wanted to avoid a repeat of the contentious strike and lockout that disrupted Southern California grocery shopping for nearly five months beginning in October 2003.

The union broke off talks Tuesday over what it said was a proposal by the large supermarket chains that would gut the trust fund that purchases health insurance for workers.

But Ralphs, which along with Vons and Albertsons are negotiating a contract for a combined 65,000 workers, dropped its usual silence on labor matters and said Wednesday that the supermarket chain had offered a much improved health insurance proposal during the bargaining.

Ralphs said its proposal would tap $500 million that has accumulated in the health benefit trust fund and $1 billion in employer contributions to make it easier for employees to obtain health insurance and make other benefit improvements. It did not release more-specific details.

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