SOMERVILLE — Stop & Shop workers in southern New England walked off the job Thursday, after more than 31,000 employees last month authorized their union leaders to call for a work stoppage amid increasingly strained contract negotiations.
The United Food & Commercial Workers union said in a statement that the walkout began in the afternoon.
“Today, at 1:15 pm, the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1445 members who work at Stop & Shop will be walking off their job,” the release said. “At the same time, UFCW Members at Locals 328, 371, 919, and 1459 will be walking off their jobs at Stop & Shop stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.”
Jeff Bollen, president of UFCW Local 1445, confirmed the work stoppage in a video message posted online.
He said that contract talks had begun in January and “here it is, April, we are still miles apart. This company has shown us that they do not respect you. They do not respect the hard work that you do every day, and we’re done talking today. We’re going to take action.”
In a statement, Stop & Shop said it was disappointed its workers had walked off the job.
“Given that negotiations with assistance of the federal mediators are continuing, we are disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt service at our stores,” the company said. “Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption.”
Stop & Shop, the largest supermarket chain in New England, also said it had made a reasonable contract offer, which included “[a]cross-the-board pay increases for all associates — no one’s pay would be cut,” and “[c]ontinued ‘Gold Level’ health care benefits for eligible associates — at a fraction of what employees at other retail companies pay and with no changes to already unusually low deductibles,” as well as increased “company contributions to the UFCW’s defined benefit pension fund for current full- and vested part-time associates — a rare benefit in the New England food retail industry.”
The company said it had “temporarily closed some stores and locked the doors in order to secure these locations for the safety of our customers and associates. 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.”
Dozens of union members milled around the front of the Stop & Shop on McGrath Highway in Somerville on Thursday afternoon, urging people not to go in. Shoppers looked surprised and confused.
The workers held signs bearing messages such as, “Please don’t cross the line.”
They chanted, “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” Another chant: “Shut it down!” A third refrain went, “Stop & Shop, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.”
Terriann Toppi, 61, a cash office manager at Stop & Shop, was among the picketing workers.
“They seem like they want to take away more than they’re giving us,” Toppi said, referring to negotiations between unions and the company.
“All we want is what’s fair,” she said.
Another worker, Frederick Newman, 47, of Sharon, said he was prepared to stay off the job for an extended period.
“As long as it takes,” Newman said. “I hope not long, but it’s going to be what it is, and we gotta be here.”
Customers were caught off guard, including Leah Shapiro, 53, who came to the store looking for ingredients for pasta sauce.
“I was very surprised to see it happening when I [got] here,” Shapiro said, adding that her partner belongs to a union and she supports them. “Now that I know there’s a strike, I probably won’t come here till it’s done.”
At the Stop & Shop location in Dorchester, Bob Berman, business agent for UFCW Local 1445, informed department heads of the stoppage around 12:30 p.m.
“We were told it was always a possibility,” said Andre Benjamin, a deli clerk at the store.
The UFCW, in its statement Thursday, said Stop and Shop was flush with cash.
“Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, saw over $2 billion in profit last year and got a US tax cut of $225 million in 2017,” the release said.
The union continued, “While Stop & Shop continues to propose drastically cutting worker benefits, Ahold shareholders voted on April 10 to give themselves an 11.1 percent raise in dividends over last year. The expected payout will be on April 25 for around $880 million.”
Bollen, the union president, said in his video message that the union would maintain solidarity.
“We’re going to stick together,” Bollen said. “We’re gonna fight hard. We’re done playing games with this company. We told you we were going to fight like hell to get a good contract, and we’ve been trying to do that since January. We have not succeeded. The company will not give in, and it’s time for action.”
Bollen continued, “Stay strong, stay united, talk to the customers, and we’re going to stay till we win.”
The company said it had still been trying to negotiate as recently as Thursday morning.
“[T]his morning the company made several suggestions to the federal mediators to encourage further bargaining,” Stop & Shop said. “The mediators gave those proposals to the Locals late in the morning. The Locals provided no counter proposals to the mediators and simply stated they were proceeding with their plans.”
Stop & Shop added that in contrast to the company’s proposal, “which is better than most recent UFCW contract settlements and responsive to heavy non-union competition, the unions proposed a contract that would increase the company’s costs. This would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace.”
Stop & Shop, the company said, “remains ready and available to meet with the union locals at any time. We are committed to good faith bargaining and hope to reach new contracts as quickly as possible that both recognize and reward the great work of our associates and enable Stop & Shop to compete effectively in the rapidly changing New England grocery market.”
Katie Johnston of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent John Hilliard contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.