Southern California Gas Co. and the union representing its workers are running out of negotiating time on a labor contract that expires this weekend.
A strike could begin as early as midnight Saturday against the company that serves more than 20.3 million consumers in Southern California.
On Sunday, Local 132 of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, asked its members for an authorization vote that would give the union the right to call a walkout if negotiations fail. Local 132 officials said Wednesday that more than 3,000 of the 5,000 workers covered by the contract turned out and voted 4 to 1 in favor of a strike authorization.
It was an unusual turn of events for what has been one of the region's least contentious labor negotiations, which have often taken place far from the public eye. The union hasn't gone on strike since 1993, and even then the walkout lasted only a day.
But this time around, the utility workers union is accusing SoCal Gas of claiming financial hardships tied to the weakness of the U.S. economy. The union is arguing that SoCal Gas' status as a regulated utility insulates it against such downturns.
SoCal Gas' most recent earnings results, from the third quarter of 2008, showed that the company's net profit rose to $77 million from $63 million a year earlier.
For its part, the utility, which is owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, has accused the union of thumbing its nose at a lucrative deal. The issues of disagreement are common to many labor disputes: healthcare costs, sick leave and pension benefit funding.
"They are exploiting a downward turn in the economy at the expense of their own workers," said John Duffy, national vice president of the Utility Workers Union of America.
SoCal Gas spokeswoman Denise King disputed the union's contentions. King said that, among other things, SoCal Gas was offering a 10.5% increase in wages for union employees, to be phased in over 20 months.
Both sides stressed that talks had continued throughout the day and were scheduled to resume today. The last union contract ran from January 2005 to September 2008 and was extended through Jan. 31.
Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said the group would vote Friday to determine whether federation unions would support utility workers if they went on strike.
Durazo said that the utility workers had come to a difficult conclusion in the midst of a deep recession.
"In these economic times, this was not an easy decision to make," Durazo said.