Thousands of workers at Stop & Shop supermarkets across three New England states walked off the job Thursday afternoon to go on strike.
Workers at the Stop & Shop on Broad Street in Meriden received word from the United Food and Commercial Food Workers locals 371 and 919 at 12:30 p.m. to be ready to strike at 1 p.m. The unions were among five that voted last month to authorize the strike.
The employees followed their stewards out the doors to the sidewalks, prompting the remaining managers to lock the doors 15 minutes later.
“One person can’t run the building,” said employee Bill Brown. “The things we are asking for … I hope they can settle that at a higher level.”
Customers were told by picketers the doors were locked. Managers assisted some customers looking to enter the store to obtain medical prescriptions. Customers and passing motorists honked or voiced support for the workers.
“I was very surprised,” said Regina Teesdale of Meriden. “I go here all the time and never seen this before. But I do believe the workers. Large companies tend to make it difficult for their employees.”
The workers are striking over cuts to their health benefits and pensions.
Union officials have said that health care is a central issue, specifically the amount of money employees are asked to contribute to their premiums. The employees also opposed changes to pension contributions, and the increased use of automation in stores.
“They want to take $200 out of our paycheck every week for health care and pension,” said Deolinda Sullivan.
The workers asked customers to shop elsewhere during the strike.
In a statement, Stop & Shop said: “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.”
A Stop & Shop statement said the company has “proposed a good and reasonable offer to our union locals” and the “unions proposed a contract that would increase the company’s costs.”
It added: “Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption.” The company previously said it would hire temporary workers in the event of a strike.
People’s United Bank Stop & Shop branch locations will continue to operate as usual, to the extent possible, a spokeswoman said.
“Customer and employee safety is our first priority and we will continue to provide service with as minimal disruption as possible,” Sara Longobardi, vice president for retail banking, said in a statement. “We hope there is a quick and amicable resolution to the matter for both parties involved.”
Police Lt. Thomas Cossette met with managers and security inside the store before addressing the employees. The employees were not asked to leave Stop & Shop property.
“But they can’t block the doors, no name calling,” Cossette said.
Striking workers are expected to picket during their normal shifts. Some asked if police would patrol the area, particularly at night and early morning.
Cossette said there would be regular patrols, but if officers get called away he can’t guarantee total coverage.
A 75-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, took a 15-minute bus ride from Liberty Street to pick up some groceries. After learning the store was locked he said, “I got to eat.”
Gene McLean, who was waiting for a friend to get inside for his prescriptions, told him, “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a ride to Big Y.”