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70,000 grocery store workers strike

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Facing "major cuts" in salary and benefits, nearly 70,000 grocery store workers -- ranging from cashiers, to meat cutters, to pharmacists -- went on strike in southern California late Saturday, after failing to come to an agreement with their employers, according to a union spokeswoman.

The strike affects 850 stores from three grocery chains -- Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs -- although the United Food and Commercial Workers have only walked off the job from Vons -- a division of Safeway, Inc. -- spokeswoman Barbara Maynard said.

The strike was announced at 10 p.m. (1 a.m. Sunday EDT), about an hour after talks broke down, and went into effect at 10:30 p.m., she said.

The union workers had previously announced they would target only one of the three supermakets "in order to avoid inconveniencing their customers," according to a UFCW press release. Maynard said workers are still on the job at Ralphs -- a division of Kroger Co. -- however Albertsons has locked out employees from the UFCW.

The workers' contract expired Sunday and the two sides failed to reach an agreement during talks since then.

Maynard says the three employers want to "shift $1 billion in healthcare costs" onto workers, while the supermarkets say they are trying to keep up with the rising costs of health care as well as compete with other stores that provide lower wages and fewer benefits.

"The cost of providing health care benefits to [UFCW] grocery emplyees has risen by more than 50 percent during the four years of the expired contract," according to an Oct. 6 press release from all three grocery chains.

The press release also points out that after two years of employment, a grocery clerk can make up to $17.90 an hour. A clerk can earn one-and-a-half that hourly amount on Sundays, and three times that much on contractual holidays.

Maynard confirmed that figure, which would amount to over $34,000 for a cashier's full-time annual salary, but noted that most of the workers -- 80 percent, she said -- are part-time.

"And it's not like they are part-time and can go work another job, it's their primary job," she said. "They are on call ... at the whim of their managers."

The grocery stores have "fully executed plans in place in preparation for a strike and will continue operating their stores and seving customers," according to the press release.

Talks between the union and the supermarkets began right after Labor Day, Sept. 1, and the two sides failed to reach an agreement before the contract expired Oct. 5.

Seven UFCW local unions representing the 70,000 workers voted this week to authorize the strike, and reject the employers' most recent contract offer. The union says some 85 percent of the workers eligible to vote showed up to cast their ballots; 97 percent of the approved the strike.

On Friday, at the urging of a federal mediator, the two parties restarted negotiations in an attempt to reach an 11th hour agreement, Maynard said.

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