The members of the union representing workers in Southern California’s major grocery chains have authorized a strike, voting overwhelmingly to walk off the job if contract negotiations fail to deliver better pay and benefits.

The voting by workers at Vons, Albertsons, Ralphs and Pavilions took place Monday and Tuesday across the region for seven local groups represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Union leaders announced the vote tallies early Wednesday.

Greg Conger, president of Local 324 of UFCW, said 96% of the unionized workers at all four chains voted in favor of a strike.

Union leaders have expressed their exasperation over months of dissatisfactory contract negotiations, saying the offers made by the grocers amounted to pay cuts for many employees.

Authorizing a strike doesn’t mean there will be any immediate labor action, but it does broadcast the union’s dissatisfaction with contract negotiations, which started almost four months ago. The next three-day round of negotiations is scheduled to start July 10.

The vote is reminiscent of the four-month-long strike that paralyzed much of Southern California’s grocery scene in 2003 and 2004. Thousands of grocery employees walked the picket lines while shoppers had to choose to either cross their protest line or shop at non-unionized stores.

Since then, contract talks have frequently been acrimonious, but labor action has been avoided. The two sides were within minutes of a walkout in 2011, according to reports, but then reached an agreement.

John Votava, director of corporate affairs for Ralphs, said Monday the company  “has a contingency plan in place to ensure our stores remain open” should a strike take place.

UFCW claims the latest contract offer would cut salaries for general merchandise clerks and also reduce the pay of cashiers by downgrading their job classifications. Other workers would see pay raises of less than 1%.

Also, the union said the chains want to cut funding to the health care plan to the point where it could go bankrupt.

Source: OC Register