Employees at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons filed into fairground halls, hotels and sports arenas Sunday to cast their ballots. Union officials said later the measure authorizing a walkout overwhelmingly passed. A formal announcement was expected Monday.
"We had a really, really high turnout," said Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers. "Our members were very motivated to send the companies a message it's not satisfied with what's on the table and with how long the negotiations have been going on."
The union called the vote after negotiations failed to yield a comprehensive offer from the markets by a union-imposed Thursday deadline. The authorization does not mean a strike is imminent.
Employees at the Ralphs and Vons chains were asked to grant their union negotiators the power to order a strike and whether they endorsed a partial contract offer. Albertsons employees already had given the union clearance to send them to the picket line, and were simply asked about the contract proposal on pay and health coverage.
The chains criticized the decision to hold a vote on an incomplete proposal as premature and accused the union of walking away from the negotiations and stalling progress toward a deal.
"If union leaders were honest with our employees, they'd tell them we're making progress on the core issues of wages, pensions and health care eligibility and are scheduled to continue those discussions next week," Michael Bustamante, a consultant for Ralphs, said in a statement.
The union maintains the supermarkets have been dragging out the negotiations, which began in January.
Three-year contracts covering 65,000 workers at 785 stores from San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield south to San Diego expired in March. The contract has been renewing automatically on a daily basis and will continue to do so until any of the parties opts to end the process.
The union wants to regain concessions made three years ago that created a two-tiered system splitting employees into separate wage and benefit classes.
Prior to that deal, veteran employees qualified for health care after four months and didn't have to pay any health premiums. Now, workers have had to wait 12 months or more to qualify for health coverage; longer for their dependents; and have been asked to pay premiums for health care.
The supermarkets have offered to remove the wage cap for employees hired after 2004, allowing them to eventually earn as much as veteran employees. The union says the terms are too onerous, as they would require the mostly part-time employees work more than 10 years to get reach the top pay scale.
The latest company proposals also only offer wage increases to the top tier of workers, according to the union.
The union and the supermarkets appear closer to agreement on the framework of employees' health plan, having agreed in principle to expand benefits and to shorten the time it takes for workers and their dependents to qualify for health care.
Still, both sides remain far apart on how much money the employers and the workers should contribute to fund the plan.
Ralphs Grocery Co. is a unit of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. Vons Cos. is owned by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif. Albertsons is owned by Supervalu Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.