About 62,000 union grocery store workers in Southern California remain at their jobs for now until leaders and management sit down again with a federal mediator beginning Aug. 29 to negotiate parts of a new contract.

In voting Aug. 19 and 20, members of seven local unions of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union voted to reject the contract offered by Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons stores, authorizing their leadership to call a strike. The union said more than 90 percent voted to reject the most recent contract in a secret ballot.

The key issue for workers is a proposed reduction of health benefits in the form of higher premiums, deductibles and co-pays, according to a union press statement.

“Contrary to company claims, the proposals would devastate workers’ health care benefits within 18 to 20 months,” the union statement said.

A combined statement from the three grocers said the companies are significantly increasing contributions to employee health care, and that a worker’s share for benefits “is still well below that of competitors and other companies.”

Under the proposed contract, the cost for all employees’ health care would go to $9 weekly for single people, and $23 per week for families. In the current plan, workers hired before 2004 pay zero premiums while those hired after 2004 pay $7 weekly for individuals and $15 for family plans.

The last strike affecting Southern California grocery chains in 2003-04 lasted 141 days, with companies losing about $2 billion in sales, according to the union announcement.

— Mike Allen