Hannaford employees walk a picket line in front of the grocer's South Portland distribution center blocking a delivery truck.

Hundreds of Hannaford workers at the South Portland distribution center launched a 24-hour strike early Wednesday morning, appearing to buck the supermarket giant’s attempt to avoid it through mediation talks.

About 250 workers voted to authorize the strike Saturday after they rejected the supermarket giant’s “last, best offer” on a three-year contract. On Wednesday morning, dozens of workers were picketing outside the South Portland warehouse as music from the rock band Rage Against the Machine blasted over a speaker system.

Through much of the morning’s early hours, the workers’ picket line crossed the path of delivery trucks attempting to bring shipments of goods to the distribution center, delaying deliveries.

At around 10:15 a.m., South Portland police arrived and told striking workers that while they’re welcome to demonstrate, they cannot block the travel way.

Shortly after police arrived, Jeff Bollen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, gave a short speech to members on hand, reminding them they planned to demonstrate all day Wednesday and urging them not to get arrested.

“This is a wakeup call for the company,” Bollen said into a megaphone. “They need a slap in the head and we’re giving it to them”

Many workers said Wednesday they were on strike to protest what they called “unfair negotiations,” and union leaders have said the company’s offer proposed a 50-cent annual wage increase, but lowered starting wages from new workers by nearly $4.

“They’re trying to break the union and create a two-tier system,” said Mike Blenk, 62, a forklift operator who said he’s worked at the facility for 45 years.

Union leaders wanted a higher annual raise, less expensive options for health insurance plans and to scrap the wage difference for starting workers.

Wally Hansen, 61, a forklift operator who said he’s got 44 years on the job, said he now pays $160 out-of-pocket for health insurance each week, and said he would see that cost rise under the contract proposal on the table from the company.

“They pass the increase (in health care costs) on to us,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Hannaford’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, said Monday that the company had hoped to avoid a strike by agreeing to a Feb. 26 mediation. A company official did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

But union leaders at the time told the Bangor Daily News they had not agreed not to strike ahead of the mediation.

“We have to take this step in order to secure a bright future for us, the communities of Maine that we live in, and to protect new workers here in South Portland,” Bob LaBrecque, a member of the UFCW Local 1445, said in a news release Wednesday.

The strike was expected to at least temporarily halt activity at the Hemco Road distribution center, which the chain uses to receive and delivery groceries to its stores across northern New England.

The union’s old contract expired Saturday after weeks of failed negotiations.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.

Avatar photo

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.