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Thousands of Stop & Shop workers go on strike

Stop and Shop employee Luis Medina held a strike placard while waving to traffic outside the Stop and Shop on Freeport Street in Dorchester.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Thousands of Stop & Shop workers around New England went out on strike Thursday afternoon, forcing the region’s largest supermarket chain to temporarily close a number of stores, and prompting some customers at others to refuse to cross picket lines.

The United Food & Commercial Workers union, which represents the 31,000 workers on strike, abruptly called the work stoppage for 1 p.m. shortly after contract negotiations hit an impasse over pension and health benefits. Workers in three states had voted to authorize a strike in late February, but the employees only learned about the union’s directive to walk off the job about 15 minutes before it started.

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Stop & Shop, too, had little notice, though the company said it had a contingency plan in place for its 240 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

“We have temporarily closed some stores and locked the doors in order to secure these locations for the safety of our customers and associates,” spokeswoman Stefanie Shuman said in an e-mail Thursday afternoon. “We have deployed corporate personnel as well as temporary replacement workers, and we are working hard to reopen stores as soon as possible and to minimize any disruptions for our customers.”

Stop & Shop is the only major chain in the region with a largely unionized workforce. It faces increased competition from rivals with lower labor and operating costs, while its workers have been emboldened by recent strikes in other industries in which teachers and hotel workers have come out on top.

The company declined to say how many of its stores were closed. Stop & Shop has more than 400 stores in five states, and 60,000 employees. The stores in New York and New Jersey were not affected by the strike.

In Dorchester, the Stop & Shop on Morrissey Boulevard shut around 1:15 p.m., when employees walked out and asked the customers inside the store to leave with them.

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Outside the Stop & Shop in South Boston, employees encouraged customers to shop elsewhere with shouts of, “Star Market is waiting for you, go there!”

Some customers walked past them and pulled on the doors anyway, only to find them locked. The store reopened around 3:30 p.m, with one cashier.

But Eileen Murphy, 63, a longtime customer who knows some of the strikers by name, voiced support for the workers.

“I won’t cross the picket line,” she said. “I’ll just go to another market: Star Market, small stores, Foodie’s.”

The striking workers say they are protesting the company’s proposal to reduce pension benefits for new hires and increase health care premiums.

Stop & Shop notes that it is offering across-the-board pay raises and increased pension contributions for current employees and that its health care costs are a “fraction” of what other retail employees pay.

UFCW spokeswoman Erikka Knuti called Stop & Shop’s offer “smoke and mirrors.” “They give you a little bit more up front but they take it from the back,” she said. “A multibillion-dollar corporation is raking in the profits and then stiffing the people that are making them successful.”

Stop & Shop’s parent company, Netherlands-based Ahold Delhaize, which also owns Hannaford and Food Lion, reported $2.1 billion in profits in 2018.

Meanwhile, some employees said they were making little more than $12 an hour, while others said they earned around $20 an hour. The company says that the average hourly wage is $21.30, with front-end clerks averaging $15.90, while other line workers make in the $18-$20 range.

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Mary Campbell, a meat clerk at the supermarket in South Boston who has worked for Stop & Shop for 20 years, said the company is being greedy.

“They want us to work, work, work, but they don’t want to give us anything for it,” she said. “We are the ones who make this Stop & Shop. If it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t be making the money they’re making.”

When the South Boston store reopened about 3:30 p.m., customer Kathleen Kyle went inside to shop — but with reservations.

“I feel very guilty and conflicted about coming in, because I feel like I should go to another supermarket to support them,” Kyle said. “I just don’t have time, so I feel very bad because I do support them, but I’m still in here buying stuff.”

Going forward, however, she said she would make an effort to shop elsewhere.

At the Somerville store, which remained open, workers urged customers not to go in and held signs bearing messages such as “Please don’t cross the line.” Leah Shapiro, 53, who came to the store looking for ingredients to make pasta sauce, was caught off guard.

“Now that I know there’s a strike,” she said, “I probably won’t come here till it’s done.”

Another Stop & Shop spokeswoman said most of the affected stores were reopened, but closed Thursday evening at 8. The chain expects the stores to reopen at 8 a.m. Friday. Deliveries from the Peapod service are expected to continue, the spokeswoman said.

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However, Teamsters Local 25, which represents other Stop & Shop employees who are not on strike, including warehouse employees and mechanics, as well as truck drivers who deliver to the store, has pledged to honor the picket line, raising questions of whether new stock will get to stores if there is an extended shutdown.

Gary Chaison, professor emeritus of industrial relations at Clark University, said supermarkets are especially vulnerable to strikes because they operate on narrow profit margins and customers have so many competitors to choose from. Customers may be hesitant to shop at their regular stores during strikes because workers may recognize them when they cross a picket line, he said.

Despite a crowded field, Stop & Shop remains a formidable competitor in New England. It has more than one-fifth of the grocery market in the eastern half of New England, according to Shelby Publishing Co., owner of The Griffin Report of the Northeast, which follows the supermarket industry. It’s even more dominant in western New England, with 40.7 percent of the market.

Meanwhile, public sympathy for striking workers is higher than it has been in the past, said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Public school teachers in multiple states went on strike over the past year, and 7,700 Marriott workers in eight cities, including Boston, went on strike simultaneously last fall.

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“People are much more aware of the incredible inequality in the US,” he said. “No one’s thinking [Stop & Shop] is a mom-and-pop grocery store.”

Kristen Johnson, the deli manager in Somerville, noted that she has worked for the company for 11 years and still has to take the bus because she can’t afford a car.

“I’m a little nervous about [the strike], but there’s always part-time jobs we can get,” Johnson said. “I don’t care, I’ll go walk someone’s dog a few days a week.”


Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff, and Globe correspondents Annika Horn, Ysabelle Kempe, and Max Reyes contributed to this story. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.