By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff | March 8, 2010
Grocery workers approved new contracts yesterday with Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., ending months of tense negotiations and averting a threatened strike.
A day after reaching a tentative agreement with the supermarket chain, five unions representing employees in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island ratified three-year deals that will boost wages and preserve benefits, according to a spokesman for the regional chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
“Through the hard work of negotiators, we were able to reach an agreement that maintained our great health and pension benefits and provided general wage increases,’’ said Jim Carvalho, a spokesman for UFCW Local 1445, which represents 36,000 Stop & Shop employees in southern New England.
A majority of union members ratified the deal by secret ballot after an intense two-hour meeting at a Randolph function hall, Carvalho said. Most were extremely relieved the dispute had been settled, he said.
“Obviously, it’s a big load off our shoulders,’’ he said.
Carvalho declined to provide specifics on what broke the impasse, but said the terms had become more favorable for workers and that union leaders recommended the deal to members. The accord raises hourly wages and preserves benefits.
Meanwhile, unionized workers at the Shaw’s Supermarkets distribution center in Methuen went on strike after overwhelmingly rejecting the company’s contract offer yesterday morning.
Workers said the contract would have raised health care contributions, eliminated their pension for a 401(k) retirement plan, and provided only mimimal wage increases.
“The members were basically insulted, to say the least,’’ said Peter Derouen, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 791, which represents 309 workers at the Methuen facility.
Shaw’s said it “worked hard’’ to try to avoid a strike and is developing a contingency plan to keep the strike from affecting shoppers, according to a statement to NECN-TV.
In the Stop & Shop vote, Local 371 in New Haven voted unanimously to ratify the deal, and a union official in Providence said Rhode Island members were delighted with the agreement.
Negotiations had centered on the lack of wage increases and the rising health insurance contributions, according to the union.
The union said the company had sought unsuccessfully to reduce pensions for new full-time workers and reduce the number of holidays for new part-timers.
In a statement issued after the ratification votes, Stop & Shop said it was pleased with the new accords, which the company described as fair.
“Our goal during the negotiations was to reach fair agreements that will allow us to continue to provide good jobs to our associates and serve our customers for many years to come,’’ the company stated. “We are pleased to have met this goal with these ratified agreements.
“We thank our customers and our associates for their patience and understanding during the negotiating period and look forward to continuing to offer them great value and a great shopping experience.’’
On Saturday, the company said the agreement offered “very competitive wage packages and retirement benefits as well as access to quality, affordable health care.’’
The agreement is retroactive to Feb. 20, when the previous contract expired.
The Quincy-based company runs more than 350 supermarkets in New England, New York, and New Jersey. It is owned by Ahold USA.
In its last earnings release, the company reported that net sales at Stop & Shop and Giant-Landover had increased 10.5 percent to $4.4 billion.
The company said in negotiations that its compensation packages are appreciably more generous than its industry competitors.
Customers, too, were relieved a strike had been avoided.
“I am glad they found some kind of resolution. I was going to start going to Shaw’s if they went on strike,’’ said Paul Simmons, 56, from Dorchester, as he loaded groceries into his caryesterday afternoon at South Bay Center. “These people work really hard and people keep trying to take everything from them’’
Globe correspondent Michael Corcoran contributed to this report.