JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - About 160 union workers went on strike yesterday at an American Red Cross chapter that provides blood to southwestern Pennsylvania and parts of five other states.

The Communications Workers of America earlier this month filed a 20-day notice of the planned strike over a management proposal for blood collectors, phlebotomists and drivers to pay more for their health-care benefits.

Recent negotiations failed to produce a new contract.

Susan Walls, a union official, said she was among roughly 120 workers picketing outside the headquarters of the Greater Alleghenies Red Cross in Johnstown yesterday afternoon.

"At the moment, we're doing a three-day strike," she said. "We're trying to work Wednesday."

The union was hoping to secure a new contract in the coming days, though no further negotiations have been scheduled, Walls said.

Barring a lockout, the employees plan to return to work - at least temporarily - and "hope for the best," she said.

The union represents about 160 of the 700 workers employed by the Red Cross' Greater Alleghenies Blood Services Region.

The Greater Alleghenies Red Cross supplies blood to parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

Jim Starr, chief executive officer of the agency, said that the Red Cross chapter was relying on blood supplies from other chapters across the country, and that shipments had already been sent in anticipation of a strike.

Starr has said Red Cross blood drives would continue as scheduled.

Marianne Spampinato, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said that nearly 50 nonunion supervisors and team leaders were qualified to hold blood drives, and that administrators were seeking other nonunion workers to step in and work for striking bloodmobile drivers.

"We have blood in the bank," said Dorothy Hufford, a spokeswoman for Excela Health, which operates three hospitals in Westmoreland County. "We have what we need."

In a statement released Saturday, union spokeswoman Marge Krueger said it was "extremely unfortunate that the Red Cross has caused this strike."

Krueger said some Red Cross proposals would have required workers to pay a deductible plus 10 percent to 15 percent of their hospital bills - on top of a high deductible and a 20 percent co-pay.

Starr has said that the Red Cross proposed wage increases, more holiday and vacation time, and a plan to cap workers' share of their health-insurance premiums at 20 percent.

Telephone calls to Starr and Krueger were not immediately returned.