Tens of thousands of Southern California grocery workers could walk off the job as soon as Sunday night.
The union representing the workers announced on Thursday that it's canceling a contract extension with Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons, and told members to be ready to strike in 72 hours.
Kendra Doyel, vice president of public relations for Ralphs stores, said Friday the company will temporarily close all of its stores in California if there is a strike. They will reopen stores on a case-by-case basis.
The union said it took the step because the "Big 3" supermarkets are refusing to budge on health care benefits, which is a major contract issue.
"All we want to do is serve the public, be sure that our people can go to the doctor when they need to, and at the same time pay our rent," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770.
The union said the cancellation removes what it calls the final barrier to a strike, but it does not mean workers will strike.
"We are disappointed by the (UFCW) Locals' decision to give the employers 72-hour notice of the cancellation of the contract extension," Vons said in a statement. "Doing so needlessly alarms our employees and our customers. Vons and the other employers intend to remain focused on the negotiation process and urge the unions to do so the same."
"While we are disappointed the union leadership has taken this step, Ralphs remains committed to reaching an agreement," said Doyel in a statement.
In a statement, an Albertsons spokesperson said, "We don't want a strike, and we hope to continue bargaining rather than continue to alarm our associates and customers."
An Albertsons spoksperson released another statement Friday evening: "We have contingency plans in place in the unfortunate event that there is a strike. One of the lessons we learned during the 2003-04 labor dispute is that it doesn't make good business sense to try to operate all our stores during a strike. At this point, we believe up to 100 stores could close for some or all of the strike. Any decision to reopen closed stores will be based on the business conditions at that end of a strike. We hope it does not come to this. We've been bargaining almost non-stop since Aug. 29 and we feel that we were moving toward our goal of reaching an agreement that is fair to both sides."