160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! LOS ANGELES (AP) — Workers at Albertsons grocery store voted to give union leaders the authority to call a strike, bringing the prospect of a walkout a step closer. The vote, which was tallied late Sunday, did not set a date for a strike. The tallies and turnout were not released. Three-year contracts covering 65,000 workers at Southern California’s three main grocery chains is set to expire April 9 following two extensions reached in the last month. Unions are pushing to reverse a two-tier wage system they agreed to after a debilitating strike in 2003. They say the wage system has kept most new workers from getting health care benefits. Because of prior agreements, the earliest union employees at Albertsons could walk from their jobs would be April 13, according to union representatives. But a strike that day would be unlikely, they say. The stores — Supervalu Inc.’s Albertons, Kroger Co.’s Ralph’s and Safeway Inc.’s Vons — and the United Food and Commercial Workers locals began talking about a new contract in early February. Albertsons issued a statement last week calling the strike vote an “irresponsible” move to “frighten our employees and alarm our customers.” Albertsons has 22,000 UFCW workers at 249 stores in the region. Michael Shimpock of SG&A Campaigns, a media and political consulting firm hired by the union to speak about the talks, said the last thing the unions want is to strike. “But the employers have left us no choice to authorize a strike,” he said. “We must show them we are serious about demanding a fair and timely contract.” The 2003 strike cost store owners more than $2 billion by some estimates and resulted in the loss of many customers. It also made it difficult for many workers to make ends meet. Ralph’s locked out employees on Oct. 11, 2003, after Southern California grocery workers voted to strike against Vons and Pavilions. Ralph’s brought in replacement workers to keep its stores running.