Grocery store worker casts his ballot.
Thousands of Southern California grocery workers have overwhelmingly rejected a health care proposal from major supermarket chains Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons, authorizing their union leaders to call a strike, spokesman Mike Shimpock said early Sunday.
More than 90 percent of voters from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which has about 62,000 members, rejected the proposal. Union members have been working without a contract since March.
The rejection automatically authorizes union officials to call a strike after 72 hours
Shimpock did not have precise numbers on how many voted, but said the turnout was "huge."
The union will report the results to the dispute's federal mediator on Monday. Shimpock said that more talks would likely follow.
"We're willing to come back to the table and stay there," Shimpock said. "Our goal here is not to go on strike, we don't want to go on strike, but unfortunately we've been pushed into a corner by these corporations."
Both sides announced last month that they had reached a tentative agreement on the employers' contributions to pension benefits, but health care costs have been a major sticking point.
A four-month strike and lockout that began in 2003 cost Ralphs and other grocery chains an estimated $2 billion.
Messages left for grocery store representatives were not immediately returned, but Ralphs Grocery Co. spokeswoman Kendra Doyel previously said that her chain is committed to staying at the table to negotiate. She'd also said that the grocers' proposal was affordable and good for employees and their families.
Ralphs currently pays more than 90 percent of employee health coverage costs, Doyel said. Workers hired before 2004 pay nothing for health insurance while those hired later pay either $7 a week for single coverage or $15 a week for family coverage.
The companies' proposal would raise that to $9 a week for singles and $23 a week for families. Doyel said that this is much lower than the average cost of health care insurance in California.
© 2011 The Associated Press.