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LOS ANGELES - Supermarket chains and union leaders in Southern California agreed to meet in federal mediation on Friday as thousands of grocery clerks voted to authorize a strike if the mediation fails, the Associated Press reports.
In three different votes on Wednesday, 98 percent of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 members approved the strike, according to the AP. Union votes were expected in other counties Thursday and Friday, with results to be announced Friday. A two-thirds majority is needed for a strike to be authorized.
Negotiations between the union and the three supermarket chains -- Kroger Co.'s Ralphs, Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Albertsons Inc. -- ended Sunday, and the contract covering more than 70,000 Southern California grocery clerks has since expired.
Nearly 900 stores would be affected if workers were to strike, which could happen as early as Saturday. The last time the grocery workers went on strike was 1978 and it lasted less than a week.
The supermarkets and union representatives disagree on several key issues, especially proposed changes by the companies to the scope and cost of employees' health care coverage.
The companies want the workers to take on a larger share of the cost for their health benefits, citing a sluggish economy, rising health care costs and increased competition from rival chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., that employ nonunion workers.
"As responsible companies, we are seeking nothing more than a fair contract that will help us to remain competitive in the face of soaring health care and benefit costs and increased competition from lower-cost operators," Ralphs President John Burgon said in a statement earlier in the week.