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Shaw�s, union enter mediation in hopes of averting strike
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BOSTON (AP) -- Shaw�s Supermarkets and the union representing 6,000 grocery workers returned to the bargaining table Monday in hopes of averting a threatened strike at 39 stores in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Negotiators for both sides met with a federal mediator at an undisclosed location a day after workers overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal the grocery chain had presented hours earlier and characterized as its final offer.

Sunday�s 81 percent vote by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 791 to turn down the proposal and authorize a strike increased the possibility of a walkout this week by workers at 25 stores in southeastern Massachusetts and all 14 Shaw�s stores in Rhode Island. Employees at a distribution center in Maine also voted to go on strike.

Workers at other Shaw�s stores in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are non-unionized and unaffected by the labor talks, and unionized Shaw�s employees in Connecticut are covered by a different local.

Shaw�s spokesman Terry Donilon said Monday the company was prepared �to meet as long as it takes to reach an agreement.� He said the company was ready to continue operating stores that would be affected by a strike, but offered no details on how that would be accomplished.

Local 791 spokesman Peter Derouen said the union was focused on trying to reach an agreement but was prepared to strike and had picket signs ready to go.

�It�s up to the company now to get serious about negotiations,� he said.

Derouen said 1,214 members cast ballots Sunday to reject the three-year contract offer and authorize a strike, with 197 voting to ratify the proposal.

�Quite frankly, we feel this particular offer was an insult,� Derouen said.

A statement issued by West Bridgewater-based Shaw�s after the union vote said the company �has put on the table a very generous offer� that would leave unionized workers �among the best compensated in the industry in New England.�

Balloting by a broad range of full- and part-time store employees was conducted at a hotel in Randolph. About 350 workers at the Wells, Maine, distribution center rejected the contract offer on a unanimous voice vote Sunday evening.

The store workers� vote came hours after Shaw�s Supermarkets presented what it called its �last, best and final offer.� Employees continued working at the affected Shaw�s stores Sunday under terms of a contract that expired overnight.

The company said its latest offer includes wage increases in each year of the contract, pension increases, and a choice of four health plans: three Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans, and the UFCW health plan.

But Derouen said the proposal offered few improvements from an earlier version. Talks have been under way since June, with the company�s plans to control rising health care costs emerging as the main sticking point. Other differences remain over wages, work rules and pension benefits.

Shaw�s, owned by Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Inc., one of the nation�s largest food and drug retailers, says costs for the union�s health care plan for the 39 stores have risen more than 60 percent in the last three years.

The union has said the company�s original proposal would result in a 27 percent reduction in benefits, and shift thousands of dollars to employee insurance copays without increasing wages.


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