LYNN — Chanting Stop & Shop workers wearing signs that read “please respect our picket line” asked shoppers not to enter the grocery chain’s stores after four months of talks on core work conditions broke down Thursday.
Lynn store employees, including florist manager Bridget Clemens of Saugus and meat clerk John Fountaine of Lynn, stopped serving customers and picked up picket signs at 1 p.m.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1445 members and 15,000 coworkers across Massachusetts are striking over what Local President Jeff Bollen said is Stop & Shop’s push for “major concessions” in worker pension and health plans and holiday and sick time provisions.
“These are the worst negotiations since we can’t remember. We’re going to stay out until we win,” Bollen said.
The strike affects Stop & Shop’s local stores including the Lynn store on Washington Street; the Howley Street store on the Salem-Peabody line, and the Saugus Plaza Stop & Shop.
Stop & Shop spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan said the strike comes as the company and UFCW were continuing to talk 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. Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption,” Brogan said in a statement.
The Lynn store manager declined to discuss those plans but striking workers said the store has self checkout machines for customers.
Bollen said UFCW last struck Stop & Shop in 1985 in a job action that only lasted a few hours. The start of Thursday’s strike left customers like Princess Guwor, a Lynn teacher, with decisions to make.
Guwor walked across the Lynn store parking lot and Clemens asked to speak to her about the strike.
“We’ve been bargaining and bargaining. We’re fighting for our benefits,” Clemens said.
Guwor said she goes to the store once a week, mostly to conduct transactions at the Western Union counter. After listening to Clemens, Guwor headed for the store entrance only to be told the Western Union machine was shut down.
She said she would consider the strikers’ request to not shop at the store.
Bollen and striking employees said Stop & Shop workers contribute $27 a week for a Blue Cross Blue Shield family health care plan and individuals pay $13.50. Bollen said Stop & Shop has proposed tripling the employee contribution amount.
Bollen said a company-paid pension contribution matched to workers’ years of service would be reduced under company proposals.
Brogan said company proposals include increased company contributions to the UFCW’s defined benefit pension fund for current full- and vested part-time associates. She described the proposal as “a rare benefit in the New England food retail industry.”
In a statement, Brogan said the company’s proposals include “continued ‘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.”
Her statement also said Stop & Shop has proposed across-the-board pay increases but the statement did not specify the amount of the increase. Bollen said the average employee wage is $14.35 an hour.
“Stop & Shop 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,” Brogan said.
Bollen said UFCW is asking for wage adjustments that protect against inflation and workers said they oppose what they described as company proposals to do away with time and a half pay on Sundays and holidays.
Striking Lynn workers had varied views on how long they can stay out of work.
Clemens has worked for the company for more than three decades and said she can rely in part on family support if the strikes extends from days into weeks.
“The longer it takes the harder it will be. A lot of people at this store live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
Customer Mikylya Akers of Lynn said she likes Stop & Shop for its regular shopping deals and courteous employees. But she said she appreciates the striking workers’ perspectives.