Frustrated by an inability to reach an agreement despite negotiating for much of the year, the United Food and Commercial Workers union set a noon deadline today for the major grocery companies to make a contract proposal.
Both sides say that there are too many complex issues left unsettled and that neither side has budged on key differences.
Here's a look at the state of the talks.
What is happening today?
Negotiations continue. The union is demanding that Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons produce a written contract offer by noon. The union also has scheduled an afternoon news conference.
Will there be another strike and lockout like the 141-day dispute in 2003-04 that made grocery shopping so hard?
It's too soon to tell. Both sides say they don't want a strike, and for good reason. The last dispute cost the employers an estimated $1.5 billion and was catastrophic to workers. About half of the employees of the three big chains at the time of the dispute have left the business.
What happens if there is no contract proposal from the grocery companies today?
Watch for an immediate reaction from the union.
The UFCW will probably step up pressure on the stores and ask workers to authorize union leaders to call a strike against Vons and Ralphs. Albertsons workers have already voted to authorize a strike. A vote could come Sunday or Monday. The stores could lock out workers if any one company is struck.
If things get really ugly, when could we expect a strike?
There are still a couple of steps. The union needs two-thirds of its members voting in an election to agree to strike. Next, the union has to give the employers 72 hours' notice that it is canceling the contract, which has been extended since its March 5 expiration date.
That would delay a work stoppage until the end of next week, at the earliest.
"I'd say things aren't amicable, but we really haven't mapped out a strategy beyond the vote," Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said.
What's the strategy behind the rhetoric?
It's pretty simple. The threat of a strike is the UFCW's biggest leverage. The employers are loath to make economic concessions unless they feel compelled to do so. They're looking to see whether the union has the muscle to win another strike vote.
What have the two sides agreed to?
So far, they have agreed to slash the wait time for new workers to get health insurance to six months from one year to 18 months, depending on the job. Children of workers also would become eligible after six months, compared with 30 in the current contract. The new plan also would fully cover preventive care.
They have agreed that workers deserve hourly raises. Employees have received some bonuses but no raises since 2002.
This all sounds great. What's the problem?
"The devil is in the details," said Greg Conger, president of UFCW Local 324 in Buena Park.
For example, the two sides can't agree on how much the health plan would cost and how it should be funded.
And although raises are in the offing, the two sides haven't talked much about the size of the increases.
The employers say they have proposed eliminating much of a two-tier wage system that created a group of 33,000 workers who were hired after the 2004 accord and received lower wages and benefits than veteran employees. They would bump workers to first-tier salaries after about nine years of service, based on a 28- to 30-hour workweek.
But union officials, who have made a priority of eliminating the two-tier system, were incensed with the mechanics of the proposal. They said it would extend the time required to reach the highest wage and would create a third tier.