The Berkshire Eagle  reports nearly 250 members of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1459 of Springfield gathered Sunday morning in Chicopee and voted unanimously to authorize union leaders to call a strike if contract talks remain at an impasse, according to union officials.

That doesn't mean the rank and file will immediately walk off their jobs at the two Pittsfield stores, the one in North Adams or the other 11 in Hampshire and Hampden counties, according to UFCW local 1459 secretary-treasurer, Dean Ethier.

UFCW locals in Dedham and Westport, Conn., representing Stop & Shop employees in southern New England have already issued strike authorizations.

In all, Local 1459 represents 1,300 employees, except those in the meat department which is represented by another of the local bargaining units.

Stop & Shop employees in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been working under an expired contract since Feb. 23 and are not close to reaching an agreement on pension benefits, wages, health and welfare, Ethier told The Eagle. The company employs about 31,000 people in those three states.

"We are far apart on all of them," he said.

The supermarket chain in a press release states their employees currently pay far less for health insurance than most companies and the company provides most of its employees with a defined benefit pension, funded completely by the company and gives more paid time off than other food retailers in the region.

The chain says it has proposed pay increases for full-time associates and competitive wages for part-time associates.

However, Stop & Shop, the only large unionized food retailer that is still operating in New England, says labor costs are having a major impact on the company's ability to compete in a fundamentally changing market.

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