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Raley's employees at the supermarket's four Sonoma County stores Sunday joined thousands across the state in the first walkout in the company's 77-year history.

After three days of failed contract negotiations, the strike began at 6 a.m. Sunday at most of the grocery chain's approximately 130 stores in California and Nevada.

Threats to cut health benefits were central to the dispute, said a group of picketers outside of Rohnert Park's store on State Farm Drive, who had all worked for the company for between 16 and 32 years.

"I love Raley's, I gave my life to Raley's," said Linda Coffee of Sebastopol. "Now we're getting close to retirement and they're trying to take (benefits) away."

The strike came after all-day talks Saturday. A midnight deadline was extended at the request of a federal mediator, but talks broke down around 2 a.m. Sunday, said Mike Henneberry, a United Food and Commercial Workers Union spokesman.

"The company's position is fairly breathtaking. They really haven't changed much of any of their positions in the 15 months that we've been in talks," Henneberry said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents nearly 100 employees at the Rohnert Park store as well as meat counter workers at stores on Fulton Road in Santa Rosa, Lakewood Drive in Windsor and North McDowell Boulevard in Petaluma.

The union said it represents 7,400 of the chain's employees across California and Nevada.

Stores normally operate from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but the Rohnert Park store has reduced its hours during the strike to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In Rohnert Park, Raley's clerk Chris Jensen, 59, said she and her fellow union members are willing to take pay cuts but they just cannot swallow further reductions in medical benefits nor will they accept a wholesale cut of medical benefits for retirees.

"We were counting on it, that was part of the wages," said Jensen, 59, of of Rohnert Park.

Union workers were staffing picket lines outside most of the chain's stores by 6 a.m. Sunday, he said.

Raley's spokesman John Segale said that despite the strike and the picket lines all of the company's stores were open Sunday as usual.

"It is unfortunate that after 15 months of talks and nearly 60 negotiation sessions, we were not able to agree on a new contract since it is clearly understood that we must reduce our operating costs to become more competitive against non-union retailers," Segale said.

Retired workers joined current employees at the Santa Rosa Raley's at Fulton and Guerneville roads.

"They've been chipping away at our coverage," said Joe Colosi, 66, of Sebastopol, who retired in 2001 after spending 18 of his 42 years as a butcher working at Raley's.

"They're trying to take too much away from retirees and people still working," Colosi said. "We're going to be out here as long is it takes."

Staff in Rohnert Park posted a sign in the window with tall red type: "Now hiring replacement workers."

Two security guards posted outside also were new, picketers said.

Norma DePucci, 50, of Cotati said she arrived at work at 4 a.m. and worked hard to make sure that everything was in order for the replacement workers who showed up in vans before the 6 a.m. walkout.

"I thought, 'Here I am, setting up for someone to take my job,' " said DePucci, a senior clerk in the bakery and deli who has worked at Raley's for 25 years. "Then I started crying."

The two sides have been at odds over a proposed wage freeze, elimination of premium pay for Sunday shifts and health care benefits.

Raley's says it needs to cut costs in the face of a weak economy and competition from nonunionized companies that also sell groceries, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

"We are under some fierce competition and we must reduce our costs to allow us to compete in the future," Segale said.

But union officials say the chain has not agreed to a full audit of its finances, and has been bargaining in bad faith since contract negotiations began.

"They have decided what their position is and they're not going to change that," Henneberry said.

West Sacramento-based Raley's is a privately owned company that employs 13,000 people at 115 stores in California and 13 in Nevada operating under the Raley's name, as well as Bel Air Markets, Nob Hill Foods, Food Source and Aisle 1 Fuel Stations, according to its website.

Associated Press contributed to this report.