The union representing about 62,000 employees of Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons across Southern California was poised on Sunday to call a strike if a new labor deal cannot be reached.
Members of United Food and Commercial Workers, employed at stores from Santa Barbara County to the Mexico border, have been working without a contract since March 6, and more than 90 percent of those who voted over the past two days agreed to authorize a strike.
The union wants the supermarkets to contribute more to a health care fund it claims will run out of money within a year.
Under the current contract offer, workers would pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage.
Apparently no tentative agreement on wages has been reached.
A 141-day strike in 2003-04 which cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion led some customers to make long-term changes to their shopping habits by going to independent grocers and specialty outlets.
Both sides agreed that the last strike hurt both sides.
"We don't want another strike, but we need to protect our health benefits for ourselves and our families," Mario Frias, a Ralphs employee, said as union members cast ballots on Saturday.
Mickey Kasparian, the president of UFCW Local 135, said a federal mediator would continue to work toward a resolution, but a strike could be called in five or six days if there are no positive developments.
"If we don't get a deal, we'll take this fight to the streets," Kasparian said.
A spokesman for the grocery chains called the strike authorization vote a common negotiating tactic.
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