Negotiations between the United Food and Commerical Workers Union and grocery stores are scheduled to resume Monday with the help of a federal mediator in the hopes of avoiding a strike.

Southland grocery workers and union officials staged a rally this week in another push for a new contract, stressing they do not want to go on strike, but they will if they don’t believe they are receiving fair labor offers from the owners of Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons.

Last week, an overwhelming majority of the 62,000 grocery workers voted to authorized a strike.
“I voted for this strike,” said Tom Hancock, a worker at Pavilions, which is affiliated with Vons. “I didn’t want to. I went through the last strike, but they’ve left us no choice. So I’m happy that more than 90 percent of us voted for the strike.”

Hancock said the strike in 2003-04 “was extremely tough. It’ll be tough in the short run now, too,” he added.

The grocery chains released a statement calling the strike-authorization vote a “common tactic in negotiations” that does not necessarily mean a strike will be called.

“Our employees want to keep working, and our stores are ready to serve customers,” according to the stores.

Some of the stores have been accepting applications for fill-in workers in case the grocery workers do walk off the job.

Members of the union employed at stores from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border have been working without a contract since March 6. More than 90 percent of those who voted over the weekend agreed to authorize a strike, according to the union.

“Our members overwhelmingly authorized a strike, because they want a fair contract, not a walkout,” UFCW Local 770 president Rick Icaza said Sunday.

Under the current industry contract offer, workers would pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage. But the union says the insurance fund would not be financially viable and wants the supermarkets to contribute more to prevent the healthcare fund from running out of money within 16 months.

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 they were both hurt by the last strike.

“We don’t want another strike, but we need to protect our health benefits for ourselves and our families,” said Mario Frias, a Ralphs employee.

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.