Striking union workers at a Hannaford Supermarkets warehouse in South Portland chanted, marched and temporarily blocked delivery traffic Wednesday in a show of strength aimed at bringing management back to negotiations.

“This is a wake-up call to your company,” United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445 President Jeff Bollen bellowed to roughly 150 striking union members during a late-morning pep talk. “They need a slap to the head and we are going to give it to them.”

A 24-hour strike was launched early Wednesday morning, two days after Delhaize America Distribution, the company that operates the distribution center, said it had understood there would be no strike before a scheduled mediation Monday. The company is a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize, an international supermarket conglomerate that also owns Hannaford.

Bollen and other union officials denied there was any agreement to wait until Monday to strike.

“That’s an outright lie, totally false,” Bollen said.

The union wanted to resume negotiations at the beginning of the week, but it was told that company negotiators were unavailable because of vacation plans and family obligations, he said.

Union workers in South Portland are tired of being disrespected by company owners and have become a “militant” unit, Bollen said. On Saturday, they voted overwhelmingly to reject the company’s final contract offer and authorize a strike. Union negotiators said the proposed contract would have slashed wages for new workers and did not address soaring health insurance costs.

Striking workers glare at a truck leaving the Hannaford distribution center Wednesday in South Portland. About 250 turned out for the picket line. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

UFCW Local 1445, based in Dedham, Massachusetts, represents 15,000 workers in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, including 246 employees at the Hannaford warehouse.

The company “didn’t believe these people would go on strike,” said Tom Brown, the union’s servicing director. “They are showing the company they will not be bullied – it is really about respect.”

Union members plan to go back to work Thursday, but Brown said that could change.

“If they don’t come to the table, it could go on longer,” he said.

The distribution center services 103 Hannaford stores in New England, including 63 in Maine.

In an email Wednesday morning, Delhaize America Distributors spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown said the company was “disappointed” that the union decided to strike after agreeing to a mediation date.

“Delhaize America Distribution intends to fully serve its customers and does not anticipate that UFCW Local 1445 actions will have a significant impact on its ability to serve its customers,” Phillips-Brown said.

Keith Marcotte, a 20-year Hannaford employee and union steward, blows a noisemaker outside the grocer’s South Portland distribution center Wednesday. Marcotte said the planned 24-hour strike was a show of good faith. β€œIt shows that we have the mustard to do this. And it shows that we are willing to honor our jobs by working tomorrow,” he said. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

She declined to respond to Bollen’s assertion that the company lied about a no-strike agreement, and whether it delayed contract talks because company negotiators were on vacation.

“We have no plans to revise the agreed-upon mediation date at this time,” she said.

The strike didn’t seem to have an immediate effect on Hannaford shoppers. Shelves were full of fresh meat, seafood and produce Wednesday at two locations in South Portland, and employees were busy restocking.

Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom did not respond to an email asking if the company had contingency plans in case the strike disrupted deliveries. A six-week walkout by delivery drivers and distribution workers at the competing Market Basket supermarket chain almost four years ago left shelves empty and forced company owners to reinstate a popular CEO.

Emmy Irvin, 23, stopped at the Hannaford near the Maine Mall for a sandwich on her lunch break Wednesday. She hadn’t heard about the strike but was concerned about possible disruption.

“Hannaford is where I do all my shopping, so it does worry me,” Irvin said.

Trucks were rolling in and out of the distribution center’s main gates Wednesday, past workers with signs and portable speakers blaring artists such as Metallica, Rage Against the Machine and Bruce Springsteen. Picketing workers tried to convince some drivers not to enter the property, and at least one truck driver, also a UFCW 1445 member hauling a meat delivery, turned around. Others honked their horns or raised a clenched fist in solidarity with the strikers, eliciting cheers and whistles from the crowd.

South Portland police were called multiple times in the morning to clear people from Hemco Road in front of the distribution center, said police Lt. Todd Bernard. The officers were not on a paid detail, so they could be pulled away on another call, he said.

Virtually all of the day-shift workers were on the picket line Wednesday, said Jason Sparks, an order selector who has worked at the warehouse for 11 years.

“Everyone’s out here. No one has crossed (the picket line) that I know of,” Sparks said.

Rising health insurance costs and a cost-neutral contract that would cut wages for new workers by at least 20 percent, to $16 an hour, are the crux of the dispute, said Larry Knight, a selector who has been at the distribution center for 31 years.

Workers gave back benefits in previous three-year contracts because of a sagging economy, but now the parent company, Ahold Delhaize, is making record profits and just received a huge corporate tax break, Knight said.

Ahold Delhaize, based in Zandaam, Netherlands, also owns the Stop & Shop, Giant and Food Lion supermarket chains in the U.S. Managers regularly tell warehouse employees that the South Portland operation is one of the most productive and profitable in the country, Knight said.

“We have made a lot of concessions in the last couple contracts because the economy wasn’t going well,” he said. “Trickle-down economics has to trickle down a little bit.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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