The union that represents 17,000 workers at the region's two largest supermarket chains is embracing the "occupy" movement as it begins contract talks Wednesday.

Anticipating difficult bargaining with Safeway and Giant Foods, the union has launched a website, occupygiantandsafeway.org, to build public support for its cause. The contract expires March 31.

Tom McNutt, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, said in a speech to union organizers last week that employees have worked hard over the last three decades to make the grocery chains highly profitable — while, he said, top executives are "making the Sheriff of Nottingham look like a saint."

Among supermarkets, Giant is ranked No. 1 in the Baltimore-Washington region and Safeway is No. 2. Together, they have 58 percent of the supermarket business, according to Food World's 2011 market report. But when other retailers that sell groceries, such as Wal-Mart and Target, are factored in the share drops to 35 percent, according to Food World.

Safeway's president and the CEO of Giant's Netherlands-based parent company made millions last year, McNutt said.

"So the issue isn't whether Giant and Safeway can afford to agree on a good contract that keeps you solidly in the middle class and improves your economic standing. We know they can," McNutt said in the speech.

Harry Burton, negotiator and spokesman for the supermarket chains, said Tuesday: "We will get through this. This is not a fight with our employees and their union."

Local 400 last struck in 1973.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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