Tens of thousands of union workers for Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs voted overwhelmingly this weekend to strike, but negotiators said Sunday they were eager to return to the bargaining table.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has employees 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 them voted Friday and Saturday to authorize a strike.
"We're hoping that the mediator will bring both sides together," said union spokeswoman Ellen Anreder. "That's our No. 1 priority."
The union wants supermarkets to contribute more to a health-care fund it says will run out of money within a year.
A spokesman for the grocers said they also want to resume contract talks.
"What we want them to do is return to the table so we can get a contract, a good contract," said Albertsons spokesman Fred Muir. "But should they decide to strike, we have made contingency plans and the stores will be open."
"Nobody wins in a stike, " Muir said. "We don't want a stike."
Muir said Alberstons posted signs at its stores last week advertising for temporary replacement workers.
There have been no talks Sunday.
Under the current contract offer, workers would pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage.
A 141-day strike in 2003-04 cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion and led some customers to make long-term changes to their shopping habits by going to independent grocers and specialty outlets.
"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 Saturday as union members cast ballots.
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.
—City News Service contributed to this report.