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September 15, 2011 | 7:47 pm

In a bid to speed up negotiations that have dragged on for more than eight months, union officials representing supermarket workers in Southern California took one step closer Thursday night to going on strike.

Their move: Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers gave a 72-hour notice to cancel their labor contract extension with the region’s three leading grocery chains — a mandatory final step before a walkout. Once the contract is no longer in effect, grocery workers can strike at any time.

Although the union is obligated to give the companies 72 hours’ notice, the action does not guarantee workers will walk off the job Sunday.

Albertsons said in a statement: “We are disappointed that union leadership decided to take this step. We are still in active negotiations…. We don’t want a strike, and we hope to continue bargaining rather than continue to alarm our associates and our customers.”

Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs, said: “Even though the union leadership has cancelled the contract extension, our stores are open for business. Bargaining will continue over the next three days and we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”

[Updated Sept. 15, 9:15 p.m.: Vons said it and the other employers “intend to remain focused on the negotiation process and urge the unions to do so the same.”]

In a statement, Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said: “We returned to the bargaining table ready to compromise and make a deal that keeps our employers profitable but protects the jobs of our members. Instead, we got more of the same stonewalling from the supermarket corporations.…We don’t want to strike, but if they won’t negotiate, we have no choice.”

The labor negotiations, which have grown increasingly tense in recent weeks, stalled amid deep divisions over healthcare funding, worker scheduling and future staffing levels.

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