Unions support Stop Shop workers

NEW HAVEN (AP) - Union members from around Connecticut pledged Friday to boycott Stop Shop Supermarkets if a contract impasse forces 43,000 workers in three states out on strike.

Negotiations between the supermarket chain and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union continued at the Omni Hotel in hopes of reaching an agreement to replace a contract that expires at midnight tonight. If no contract deal is reached, the unions would vote Sunday on whether to strike.

The union represents cashiers and workers in Stop Shop's bakery, grocery, deli, seafood, dairy, meat, frozen food and produce departments. Eighty percent of the workers are part-time.

Union leaders said the main sticking points are health care benefits and overtime wages for workers of five union locals in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Religious leaders and union officials from Yale University , the U.S. Postal Service and the New Haven teachers said Stop Shop would lose their business if the workers walk off the job.

Many unions and New Haven area churches recommend their members buy groceries at Stop Shop because the workers are unionized, unlike at some other supermarkets, they said.

"As quick as we can tell them to shop there, we can tell them not to shop there," said John Dirzius , who represents 5,000 Connecticut members of the American Postal Workers union.

Stop Shop wants employees to pay for 20 percent of their health insurance. Workers already pay for 20 percent of their major medical costs, the union said.

The company has proposed that new part-time workers would not get health benefits until they have been on the job three years.

The supermarket chain also wants to end time-and-a-half pay for new workers on Sundays and holidays, union leaders said.

"The big issue is health care. It took decades to get the health plan we have right now, and that's what they want to chip away at," said negotiator Dennis Jurkowski , a 38-year veteran meat cutter from the Stop Shop in Belchertown, Mass.

Company spokesman Gary Lewi said a federal mediator has been brought in to aid the negotiations.

"We remain optimistic we can reach that agreement. It's in everyone's interests to do so," Lewi said.

Lewi refused to discuss the details of the company's offer.

The five union locals in negotiations are 919, based in Farmington, Conn., 371, based in Westport, Conn., 328 in Rhode Island, 1459 in Springfield, Mass. and 1445 in Boston.

Stop Shop operates 220 stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Its headquarters is in Quincy, Mass., and it is owned by the Dutch grocery giant Ahold.