Faced with no raises, increased health care costs and loss of vacation time and pensions, unionized Stop & Shop workers walked off the job early Thursday afternoon forcing the grocery stores to close.

The chain’s stores in Methuen, North Andover and Andover were affected by the workers’ action at 1 p.m. over the labor dispute.

On Route 114 in North Andover, where a store is located, workers lined the street and store entrance holding strike signs.

“On strike!” the workers yelled at drivers coming into the parking lot.

Drivers and truckers going by waved and honked at the employees striking, who were wearing poster board signs hung around their necks.

Some 60 unionized workers are employed at the North Andover store, said Michelle Crean, a 21-year employee from Manchester, New Hampshire

Crean and fellow 20-year employee Karen Anderson, of Peabody, said despite weeks of negotiations, management refuses to give raises to workers and has dramatically raised the cost of their health care, including co-payments.

Management proposed a health care plan with a $5,000 deductible, said Gerry Ouellette, a union steward for UFCW Local 1445. An Ipswich resident, Ouellette, a deli worker, has been employed by Stop & Shop for 41 years.

“That’s $5,000 taken right out of our pocket,” Ouellette said.

He said the proposed contract “was all cuts. Despite them making millions.”

Outside the Andover store, about 30 workers, some of them dressed in their white butcher’s uniforms, picketed and talked to drivers as they entered the store parking lot. Other drivers honked their horns as they passed the parking lot.

In North Andover, police officers were being dispatched to that town’s Stop & Shop after workers walked out.

Anderson, while holding a strike sign, noted union workers aren’t just great employees. They are valuable shoppers often walking out of the store after finishing a shift with $30 of groceries, she said.

Workers also said management wanted to erase their pension plan and replace it with a 401K plan the company will not contribute to, Ouellette said.

Veteran workers said they would lose portions of their accrued vacation time, as many as two weeks.

As news of their strike spread, other unions including IBEW, Teamsters and the state’s firefighter’s union, the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, threw their support behind Stop & Shop workers and urged their own members, whether on- or off-duty, not to cross strike lines to shop.

In a statement posted on the company website, Stop & Shop management said, “We are disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt service at our stores,” and that they have “contingency plans in place to minimize disruption.”

Management said they have proposed a “good and reasonable” contract to employees that includes “pay increases” and no pay cuts and “gold level” health care benefits for all eligible associates “at a fraction of what employees at other retail companies pay and with no changes to already unusually low deductibles.”

Also, the company said Thursday morning it made “several suggestions to the federal mediators to encourage further bargaining.”

However, the union proposed “a contract that would increase the company’s costs.”

This would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace,” according to the statement.

Stop & Shop management said it remains ready to negotiate at any time.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

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