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California Grocery Workers Prepare to Strike as Negotiations Stall

Workers at Southern California's Albertons, Vons and Ralph's still don't have a new contract. The unions are already preparing for a possible work stoppage. So, is a strike imminent? KPBS reporter And

Workers at Southern California's Albertons, Vons and Ralph's still don't have a new contract. The unions are already preparing for a possible work stoppage. So, is a strike imminent? KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps is here to try to answer that question.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 would have to give 72 hours notice before a strike. Both sides do plan to return to the bargaining table Monday. In the meantime, one Albertsons employee tells me the uncertainty of the negotiations is making him anxious.

Iggy De Leon : The stress is sky-high right now inside the stores. Myself, I have really intermingled with my customers, so every customer that comes in is showing a concern or asking, “When is the strike going to happen?” or anything. That's very stressful, very stressful. The customers wants to know what is going on.

Iggy De Leon says he's preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. He's joining other union workers tonight to make signs and start stocking food banks. Neither side wants a strike.

The spokeswoman for the grocery chains, Adena Tessler, told me:

Tessler : This type of union activity is not helpful to the negotiation process. It really only serves to cause public anxiety and alarm our customers. This type of union activity is not helpful to the negotiation process. It really only serves to cause public anxiety and alarm our customers.

Iggy De Leon is single and 56 years old. He wants to retire in two years, but he's afraid he won't have health benefits as a retiree. That's one of the sticking points in the negotiations.

Healthcare, pension benefits, and wages are under debate. The battle over healthcare right now is how to fund it.

Both sides have mostly reached agreement on the benefits themselves. Workers are now eligible for coverage after six months, instead of a year or more. And the grocery stores have agreed to offer more preventive health benefits, like annual exams and immunizations.

Still, De Leon says has worked for Albertsons for 25 years. He says the whole industry was different back then.

De Leon : Never in my wildest dreams -- when I got into this business, it used to be a very comfortable living, and we were making good money. Right now, I'd say we're probably -- I'm going to say -- we're below average.

Adena Tessler from the grocery chains disputes that. She says the supermarket is one of the last bastions of retail -- where you can a job with a decent wage and build a career -- even if you have no experience.

The grocery chains might be facing more trouble getting that message across, though. A new documentary called “Supermarket Swindle” is in the works. It's produced by the same man who created “Outfoxed” and “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” The film juxtaposes grocery store workers against wealthy CEO's.

No word on when that film comes out. We will watch the negotiations when they resume next week.