More than 10,000 butchers and clerks struck five major supermarket chains in central New Jersey, southern New York, and western Pennsylvania Sunday, as managements negotiating with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union sought labor contract concessions to hold down escalating costs.
In coordinated but separate bargaining, managements of Pathmark, ShopRite, Grand Union, and Foodtown store chains offered wage increases ''in line with the general economy of the region.''
However, the union said that offers of 3-percent-a-year increases would be more than offset by changes that would eliminate double overtime pay for Sunday work, drop guarantees of two and half hours of overtime each week, shorten vacations, and reduce the number of paid holidays from eight to four or five a year. The union had sought increases ranging from 19.3 percent to 22.3 percent over three years.
According to store management officials, butchers earn up to $32,388 a year with another $6,000 a year in benefits.
John Niccollai, president of the striking local union, says ''concessions and givebacks'' demanded by the chains are the major issue, not the wage offer. ''They are giving us a dollar in one hand while taking back 10 from the other,'' he says.
The bargaining dispute initially affected some 7,000 butchers, meat wrappers, and delicatessen and seafood workers in 336 stores in the area, but most of 17, 000 cashiers, grocery and produce clerks, and other employees of the four chains observed picket lines posted in snow and ice and temperatures ranging from the 20s to 0.
Members of the International Brotherhoood of Teamsters are expected to refuse to cross picket lines and shut off deliveries to stores by union-contract trucks.
So far, stores have remained open. With the strike imminent, the chains more than a week ago began recruiting nonunion replacements for employees who refuse to report for work. Employers say nonunion truckers will be used to make food deliveries to stores if necessary.
Donald Daillancourt, a spokesman for the four chains, says shoppers might have ''some inconveniences'' at first, but normal operations can be expected after the newly hired employees become more experienced.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union says it expects ''a difficult and long strike.'' The concessions, described by the union as ''an insult to workers,'' would eliminate some seniority rights, lower the higher wage now paid for night work, and otherwise reduce nonwage work costs.