Sept. 17, 2011— -- The "Big Three" Southern California grocery chains are bracing for a strike and possible shut down after the union representing grocery workers canceled their contract with the stores.
About 62,000 workers in the United Food and Commercial Workers union at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons could walk off the job as soon as Sunday night.
The union's qualms are health-care centric.
The union is asking for the companies to shoulder more of the costs.
In the current offer from the companies, workers would have to pay $9 a week for solo coverage and $23 per week for a family, union and company officials told the Los Angeles Times.
The supermarket chains say that these measures are needed to help offset rising healthcare costs.
The union has been in negotiations with the supermarket chains for eight months. The last strike occurred in 2003, lasted four months and cost the companies an estimated $2 billion.
"The issue is just not enough money in the fund, period. We are willing to make compromises, we are willing to pay our fair share, contribute our fair share to the medical costs," said John Grant, representative for the grocery store workers union UFCW Local.
A strike is not guaranteed but the union issued a 72-hour notice on Thursday night which canceled the contract and left the door open for a strike.
350 Southern California Stores May Shut Down
But if those compromises are not met, the grocery stores could see their workers pick up their pickets, forcing a closure or extreme reduction in services.
Ralphs said that, in the event of a strike, staying open would not be an option at first.
"If there is a strike, Ralphs will initially close all of our stores," said spokeswoman Kendra Doyel in a statement. "During a strike, it is difficult to create a good shopping experience for our customers and a good working environment for our employees."
Ralphs' 250 stores in Southern California would close, the Orange County Register reported.
Albertsons spokeswoman Christie Ly said in a statement that up to 100 Albertsons stores could close while officials at Vons say they would remain open.
"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."
Grant said the union shares the stores' wishes for a compromise.
"We're at the table now and we tend to stay at the table all through the weekend. We are waiting for the company to do the same," said Grant.
In this time of record unemployment, some marvel at the possibility of workers intentionally discontinuing work.
"I think they are out of their minds for doing anything like this now. I'm going to get work. If they decide they don't want to do it, I'll do it, and I'll continue to shop here anyway, because this is where I live," said Bill Nelson, a shopper in Valencia, Calif.
But for these workers, the costs of continuing to work under the current policy could be more deleterious than a strike.
Cynthia Bambila, grocery store employee said, "I'm a single parent, so I depend on my health care for my daughter. So I would depend on welfare for tax payers to pay for my health care."
In a statement released on Friday, Albertson's said: "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."
And while the union also hopes to reach an agreement, it is also preparing for the worst.
"Well, I'm ready. I hate to do it, I was out there in 2003 and 2004, but they've left us no choice," said employee Tom Hancock.
ABC News Radio and the Associated Press contributed to this report.