International News - US strikers switch picket targets

Striking US grocery workers have shifted their barricades in a bid to reinvigorate the three-week-old dispute, which remains a stalemate.

The 70,000-strong strike force abandoned pitches outside Kroger-owned Ralphs stores last Friday to set up picket lines outside Safeway's Vons chain and Albertsons.

Officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which is spearheading the action in California, said it was a strategic move because Vons is seen to be calling the shots in the wrangle over health care.

The three grocers are united in their bid to gain a competitive edge in a low-growth, consolidating industry by capping spiralling healthcare costs. Bosses are keen to introduce a two-tier system that would reduce benefits enjoyed by new employees.

Shoppers are now being tempted across picket lines by necessity. Economists estimate the action is costing the Californian state economy approximately US$6.3 million (£3.7 million) a day, but the affected retailers are refusing to release sales data.

The approach of the crucial Thanksgiving holiday, with the sales bonanza it usually provokes, will test the resolve of both parties. Despite the deadlock, no new negotiations have been tabled.