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Stop & Shop workers on strike

For the first time since a 1988 strike that lasted 14 hours, Stop & Shop workers walked out of stores to form a picket line, protesting the grocery chain's offers in contract negotiations.

Locally, that means the stores in Groton, Norwich, Montville, Waterford, East Lyme and Stonington are devoid of employees, except for pharmacists, People's United Bank employees and managers.

The strike began at 1 p.m. Thursday, and while the possibility of a strike has been looming for weeks, employees barely had 20 minutes' notice. In Waterford, strike captain Deb White — who has been at the company for 36 years — said she went around the store to let employees know, made sure cash registers were secure and waited for customers who were in the store.

Mark Espinosa, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 919, the one covering stores in southeastern Connecticut, said in a video message Thursday evening that there's no meeting scheduled, but he'll "see if the company's willing to talk to us tomorrow morning."

Stop & Shop's contract with five UFCW locals in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island expired Feb. 23. All five authorized a strike, with Local 919 voting on March 10 to do so. All five, which represent more than 31,000 workers, called a strike on Thursday.

Espinosa posted a video on the union website Wednesday evening, informing union members that negotiations with the grocer had reached a "crossroads."

"Their desire for cost savings at your expense are insatiable," Espinosa said. "We are looking at about a $50 million divide between what we think and what they think relative to maintaining health care."

UFCW workers remain upset with multiple provisions in Stop & Shop's proposal, including increased health care costs, changes to premium pay for Sunday workers and a lack of raises. Espinosa argued that the company would drive away potential part-time workers by charging them $3 weekly for some benefits.

Local 919 business representative Jason Frechette clarified Friday that those working under 30 hours per week are not eligible for medical and prescription coverage but currently can get a free package of "ancillary benefits" that include dental, vision, hearing, short-term disability, life insurance and pension. Frechette said Stop & Shop originally wanted to do away with those benefits but "that wasn't something that was going to fly," so the company then offered charging $3 per week for them.

Espinosa has said while $3 per week may not seem like a lot, it will drive people out of the plan, raising costs in other areas.

In a letter to members on Wednesday, union leaders said they offered to form a subcommittee on negotiations as an effort to keep discussions going, but claimed Stop & Shop "has not been as forthcoming with information as they should have." They said Stop & Shop claims cuts to labor costs are necessary even though its parent company, Ahold Delhaize, made more than $2 billion in profits last year.

In a statement, Stop & Shop spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan said negotiations are continuing with assistance from federal mediators.

"We are disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt service at our stores," she said. "Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption."

Brogan added that the grocer has proposed "a good and reasonable offer," including pay increases for all associates, health care benefits less than what employees at other retail companies pay, and increased contributions to the benefit pension fund.

On Thursday morning, the company made "several suggestions" to federal mediators to encourage further bargaining but "the locals provided no counter proposals ... and simply stated they were proceeding with their plans," said Brogan, who added that union proposals would "make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace."

The company claims that full-time associates — including managers — in New England make an average of $21.30 per hour. Michael Forster, a produce manager and shop steward in Groton, indicated these numbers are misleading because "80 percent of us" are part-time.

The scene at area stores

More than 50 workers each picketed outside the Waterford and Groton stores Thursday afternoon. In Waterford, employees held signs reading "On Strike / Unfair Labor Practices" and chanted, "Stop, don't shop" to customers approaching the store.

At one point, an employee called out to his co-workers, "I'm running to the Dollar Store; does anybody need anything?"

The only workers in the store just before 2 p.m. were a couple of managers and a pharmacist. With the checkout lanes all closed, shoppers used self-checkout stations.

In Norwich, Stop & Shop workers picketed at the Town Street and New London Turnpike entrances to the Norwichtown Commons plaza, as well as directly in front of the store and at the Stop & Shop gas station a short way down the road on Town Street.

The supermarket itself remained open with only self-check-out stations available. The pharmacy and People’s United Bank also were open in the store. No service was available in the deli, meat, seafood, bakery and florist departments.

Several workers politely announced to incoming shoppers that the workers were on strike and asked that they not cross the picket lines. They cheered when shoppers turned away and when one woman diverted to the PetSense store to buy pet food.

Melissa Ladd, who works in the customer service center, said she started working Thursday at 6:30 a.m. and walked off as directed at 1 p.m. She remained on the picket line at 7 p.m. She said workers are being asked to report to the picket lines for what would be their scheduled work hours, but many stayed well beyond those hours. Overnight workers planned to picket, as well, she said, to alert truck drivers delivering goods about the strike.

The Montville Stop & Shop, which does not have a pharmacy, was closed for all but banking services as of 3 p.m. Thursday. In Groton, Forster said the doors were closed at one point but were opened to allow customers to use self-checkout stations.

Mary Chapman Howland, who is not an employee, stood outside on the picket line in solidarity, holding a sign that read, "Loyal customers for 23 years!! We support our workers/friends. Corporate is $$$$ wrong!!!"

Having run two soup kitchens in Groton for several years, she said she shopped at Stop & Shop every week, and held a food and money drive there every quarter.

"I've got to know everybody here, and I've gone through their births and their deaths and their marriages and everything else," Howland said. "This is my family."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, voiced support for the workers on social media, as did the Democratic Town Committees in Norwich, Ledyard and East Lyme. State Attorney General William Tong planned to stand with striking workers outside a Stop & Shop in Southington, and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, issued a statement saying she stands in solidarity with the workers.

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: This version clarifies details about Stop & Shop's proposal to have part-time workers pay $3 weekly for some benefits.


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