LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Averting a looming strike, negotiators for the union representing Southland grocery workers reached a tentative contract agreement today with the owners of Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons/Pavilions, and the proposal will be presented to union members later this week for ratification.

News of the agreement came as 62,000 Southern California grocery workers were poised to walk off the job. Officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union gave a 72-hour strike notice on Thursday, and a walk- out could have started as early as today.

Details of the agreement were not immediately released, but an update posted for members on the union’s website said the proposal “protects your health care.” The workers’ contract expired in March, but employees have continued working under the terms of the previous pact.

“We have attained our most important goal, which was continuing to provide comprehensive health care to the members and their families,” according to a statement by union negotiators.

“The grocery workers of Southern California stood together, strong and united, throughout this long and difficult process. They refused to accept anything less than a contract that protects their wages, benefits and working conditions. We are proud of them.”

Officials with the three grocery chains issued a joint statement saying the tentative deal “continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care — while allowing us to be competitive in the marketplace.

“We appreciate the hard work, support and patience that many different people have shown during the past eight months, and particularly the past few weeks.”

Health care was the major issue at the negotiating table. Grocery store officials said earlier that their most recent contact offer would require workers to pay about $36 per month for individual health insurance, or $92 per month for family coverage. But union officials said the companies were not increasing their contributions to the health care fund, insisting the plan would be bankrupt in about 16 months.

“We would like to thank the federal mediator, Scot Beckenbaugh, as well as all our customers for their patience and support through this difficult process,” said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770.

During a 141-day lockout in 2003-04, the stores hired temporary workers, and some of the chains were fined for rehiring regular employees under aliases. The replacement workers all lost their jobs when a new contract was signed, and the lockout cost the stores an estimated $1.5 billion.

The chains are now in a tighter competitive situation then they were earlier in the decade because of the advent of specialty food stores and the entry of major discounters, such as Wal-Mart and Target, into the grocery business.