Los Angeles (CNN) -- Thousands of grocery store workers could walk off the job in Southern California within days after negotiations broke down over health care benefits, a union official said.
The union, which represents 62,000 workers, gave a 72-hour notice to cancel a contract extension with grocery chains Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons, according to Rick Icaza, president of the grocery workers union Local 770.
Canceling the contract does not mean grocery workers will walk out in 72 hours, but it removes the final barrier to strike, he said. A strike can be called after that period.
Albertsons officials said they were disappointed the union gave notice, saying progress was made during talks in recent weeks.
"We don't want a strike, and we hope to continue bargaining rather than continue to alarm our associates and our customers," Christie Ly, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, said in a statement Thursday.
The union says the sticking point in negotiations, which have continued for eight months, is over the amount of health care contributions paid by the grocery chains.
"They are unwilling to compromise and are more concerned about hoarding their billions in profits than reaching a fair deal for their employees. We don't want to strike, but if they won't negotiate, we have no choice," Icaza said in a statement.
The three grocery chains were hit by a crippling strike in 2003 that lasted more than three months, and cost the companies more than $2 billion. Negotiations broke down then over an attempt to reduce health care and pension plans for new employees.
Ralphs is owned by Kroger and Vons is owned by Safeway.
CNN's Rosalina Nieves contributed to this report.