Could a summertime strike be ahead for Acme Markets Inc.?

Top executives for the supermarket chain said today that they were prepared for a walkout next month, but hoped their 4,500 unionized workers in Southeastern Pennsylvania instead would accept the company's final contract offer.

Acme president Judith A. Spires said the company's "last best offer," a list of nonnegotiable terms presented to union officials June 9, was essential to stay competitive against unionized ShopRite, Super Fresh, and Pathmark, and nonunion Wal-Mart, Target, Giant, Wegman's, and Genuardi's.

"We have to tighten our belts and stop the bleeding," Spires said. Acme said it would impose the new contract terms July 10 regardless of whether union members approved the offer.

"Nobody wants a strike. Nobody wins in a strike," Spires said in a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board that Acme had requested. Her senior vice president of operations, Bart Bohlen, was by her side.

In the event of a work stoppage, Spires said, "we are prepared to continue to operate our stores."

Bohlen reiterated the prospect of a walkout. "There's some concern that there may be a strike," he said. "That's not what we want."

The company's offer affects workers at Acme's 41 stores in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, who have been working on a contract extension since February 2008. The two sides have held 39 negotiating sessions over the last 18 months.

Acme characterized its offer as preserving jobs, access to quality health-care benefits, and employee pensions.

Union officials said a closer look revealed changes that could lead to big job losses and benefits being potentially decimated in a few years.

"They are trying to scare our members," said Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776. He called Acme's take-it-or-leave-it offer a product of "greed."

UFCW members are scheduled to vote on the offer at a meeting next Wednesday at the Spectrum. If they reject it and Acme implements the new terms anyway, Young said, the union will consider the move illegal and there will be a work stoppage.

"The company has pulled the trigger here," Young said. "The company has threatened our members with an ultimatum."

If Acme unilaterally implements the contract, "our position will be that we will go out on the sidewalk and we will be locked out," he said.

Acme leads the region in supermarket sales, but it has seen its edge shrink as competitors have opened new stores.

In making her case today, Spires said changes in work rules and health and benefits would help Acme stay on top.

"Our competitive dominance is certainly being challenged by the union and nonunion competitors," she said. "Our cost structure is so high.

Bohlen said Acme's offer had "a lot of very positive things in it" - annual pay increases of 35 cents, 25 cents, and 15 cents per hour for certain employees, in the form of lump sums rather than permanent wage increases.

The offer would introduce medical-visit co-payments for employees, which Spires and Bohlen said were now the norm for many. The company also would increase its contribution to the pension fund over the life of the proposed four-year contract.

Spires and Bohlen said Acme currently paid "250 percent higher than the average competitor in the Northeast region" for health benefits.

But Young said some changes could be devastating. The company has asked for permission to fund pension shortfalls by dipping into wages and health-benefit contributions, he said.

If that happens, benefit contributions could be wiped out, according to an analysis done for the union by an independent auditor, he said.

In addition, Acme wants work rules that would allow it to lease up to 8,000 square feet of store space.

"You could lease the produce, the dairy, and bakery departments out, and that would put a lot of our people out of work," Young said. "And retailers across the country have done exactly that. We're not idiots here."

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.