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Stop & Shop employees vote to authorize a strike

Unions representing more than 31,000 Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. workers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have agreed to strike if the parties can’t reach a deal.

Members of Local 328 and 919 of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union were the last of five unions to vote unanimously in favor of the authorization on Sunday.

The contract dispute centers on wages, health insurance, and pensions. The union said Stop & Shop’s proposal degrades the quality of life of its workers.

“Stop & Shop wants to take a lot more money from members’ pockets to pay for health care, they don’t want to fund a defined benefit pension plan, and are unwilling to give wage increases that are adequate for our workers,” said Local 328 President Timothy Melia.

The contract expired late last month. Union and management began negotiations in mid-January. Stop & Shop and the union have met 22 times since then and are scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday.

“I am always hopeful and always optimistic,” Melia said. “I’m hoping perhaps after today’s votes the company’s position will change so that we can get to a contract we can all agree on.”

On health care, Stop & Shop employees pay from $13 to $26 weekly for health coverage, he said. Under the store’s proposal, he said, deductions would be as high as $80 weekly by the end of the contract.

Melia declined to be specific about wages, but said the company is offering bonuses instead of across the board salary hikes.

“We are not willing to entertain that,” he said.

The company-sponsored pension plan provides full-time employees with an average of $69 dollars monthly for every year of service.

“The cost of purchasing that benefit has increased and they don’t want to fund it,” Melia said. “As a result, the accruals will be reduced.”

Stefanie Shuman, a Stop & Shop spokeswoman, said in an email she was unavailable for comment.

In a previous statement the company said it has offered proposals that would ensure full-time associates continue to be among the highest paid food retail workers in the region.

But a fair, new agreement must reflect the rapid changes and increasing competition that are reshaping the supermarket industry, the company said.

“Any new contract must ensure that Stop & Shop can continue to offer customers the service, selection and value they expect,” the statement said. “And it must enable us to continue investing in our people, stores and business, as well as in critical technological innovations, to ensure our long term success.”

At the close of last year, the supermarket chain had 400 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. The Quincy-based company is a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize, a Dutch retail company.

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