On April 11, 31,000 cashiers and deli workers walked off their jobs in 240 out of 414 Stop & Shop stores in the largest private sector strike in years.
Stop & Shop, unlike most supermarket chains, has a mostly unionized workforce. Conflicts between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Stop & Shop (owned by Dutch retail company Ahold Delhaize) have been ongoing for months ever since Stop & Shop’s three-year contract with UFCW officially expired on February 23.
These disputes were fueled by three main topics — health care, salary, and pensions.
Stop & Shop declared that their employees’ contributions to their “Gold Level” plan were not enough to compete with rising healthcare costs. Thus in its proposed contract, the company increased premiums from $2 to $4 a week, amounting to a $100-$200 increase yearly.
UFCW responded that on average, a full-time Stop & Shop employee would have to pay $893 more in premiums over three years. Average part-time employees who have employee-only coverage would pay $603 more over three years.
Another difference in Stop & Shop’s proposed contracts was the concept of “spousal exclusion.” Spouses of Stop & Shop employees would no longer be allowed to receive healthcare from the company if they are offered it from their own employer, regardless of quality. The union stated that this proposal would remove 1,000 employee spouses from their family health care plan.
A further factor in the strike was the change in wages. Until recently, Massachusetts required retailers to pay time-and-a-half to employees working on Sundays; in a “grand bargain” bill passed last year; this was changed to give incremental minimum wage increases and a new state paid leave program.
Stop & Shop was willing to keep time-and-a-half pay for full time workers, both current and future. However, part-time workers’ current premium would be frozen regardless of any changes of their wages in the future. The same would happen in Connecticut, although time-and-a-half pay would remain in Rhode Island.
Part-time workers make up 75% of Stop & Shop’s workforce.
To make up for this, Stop & Shop said it would provide “across-the-board” pay increases of $0.25-$0.50 an hour depending on the employee’s region, position, and tenure. The unions stated that this is less than 2% of a boost (Stop & Shop says the average hourly pay of full-time workers is $21.30, but the union claims that the average wage for part-time employees, a majority of the workers, is $12.75) and would not be enough to pay for living, healthcare and pension costs.
Pension was also an incendiary topic. Stop & Shop’s proposed contract would have kept this program rather than a 401k (which would give less individual security) but would have reduced benefits for non-vested employees.
For those hired on or before February 23, 2014, company contributions to the plan would have increased by almost 20% for current full and part time workers. The full-time employees hired after would have received a new offer of a contribution of $130 a month in order to collect an accrued benefit of $40 per month per year of service. The part-time employees would have paid $32.50 a month for $10 a month per year for pension benefits.
Union representatives said that this is a monthly pension benefit reduction of 32% for newly hired full-time employees, and a 72% reduction for part-time employees. Stop & Shop responded by saying that part-time pension benefits are “very uncommon in any industry.”
With these key benefits being fought over, events escalated quickly after negotiations began to stall on these topics. Weeks before April 11, workers voted in their unions to strike.
But on April 11, many employees were taken by surprise when union leaders sent a text 15 minutes before 1 P.M. saying that it was time to walk off.
The union soon released a video that they were on strike.
In an emailed statement to AP, UFCW asserted that, “The men and women who make Stop & Shop a success have earned and deserve affordable health care, a good wage, and the ability to retire with dignity. They have earned and deserve a good job that allows them to do what they do best: provide the very best customer service for New England communities.”
Stop & Shop’s statement from April 11 said that they were “disappointed that UFCW chose to disrupt service at our stores. Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption…
“Additionally, this morning the company made several suggestions to the federal mediators to encourage further bargaining. The mediators gave those proposals to the Locals late in the morning. The Locals provided no counter proposals to the mediators and simply stated they were proceeding with their plans.
“In contrast to the company’s proposal which is better than most recent UFCW contract settlements and responsive to heavy non-union competition, the unions proposed a contract that would increase the company’s costs. This would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace.”
Stop & Shop spokesperson Jennifer Brogan stated that these contingency plans included sending support-office staff members and temps to select locations and keeping banks and pharmacies open.
However, some stores were forced to close. Many had empty shelves and few customers.
— Marc Perrone (@Marc_Perrone) April 11, 2019
Skyhook, a location data specialist, analyzed the foot traffic of mobile devices that typically visit Stop & Shop once a week in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island over the time of the strike. From April 12-15, the amount of overall customers dropped 50%. The number of loyal customers fell 75%.
Not all stopped visiting in support of the picket lines. Steve Tarbell, a loyal Stop & Shop customer, switched to another store because his “impression is that they’re working harder right now in the picket line than they ever do in the store. [He’s] not going back.”
The striking workers have still received an overwhelming amount of support. Over four days, 1,000 people donated to a GoFundMe for striking workers who were not being paid. Many customers chose not to cross the picket lines and brought food to the protesting employees.
Arrived at my local grocery store with a long list and learned that the workers had just gone on strike. So I turned around and got back in the car. No way I’d cross that line. They are too good to me and my kids. Good luck on a fair resolution. #AlwaysFriendly #AlwaysHelpful
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) April 11, 2019
Striking employees also received attention from high profile politicians including former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
I stand with the @UFCW and @StopandShop workers on the picket line. This strike is about 31K workers across New England making their voices heard and fighting for living wages and better benefits. When workers fight, workers win. pic.twitter.com/P19WjhRqG6
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) April 12, 2019
Lisa Juliano is a florist manager who has worked at the Stop & Shop on Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She walked out because “The extra Sunday pay makes up what I live on day to day. If not for the extra I get on Sundays, I wouldn’t have gas to come to work the rest of the week.”
Marsel Desorcie, 63, is another one of the striking workers. He found Stop & Shop’s cuts to pension “insulting.” He said, “This has been my full-time for almost 20 years now, and they’re all of a sudden saying, [they’re] saying, ‘You’re not as valuable to us anymore as you used to be.’”
On April 20, the union locals and Stop & Shop were able to come up with a compromise. The new three-year contract will keep employee health care and retirement benefits as they were, provide wage increases in place of bonuses, and keep time-and-a-half for employees who work on Sunday intact. On April 25th, it was ratified unanimously by three union locals, and the fifth finally ratified it on May 2.
In their statement, UFCW said, “Today is a powerful victory for the 31,000 hardworking men and women of Stop & Shop who courageously stood up to fight for what all New Englanders want – good jobs, affordable health care, a better wage, and to be treated right by the company they made a success.”
Stop & Shop provided an update announcing that they had reached agreements with UFCW Locals 328, 371, 919, 1445, 1459, that they were glad to have workers return to work, and that their top priority would be restocking stores.
On April 22nd, the employees in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island returned to work.
The strike cost Stop & Shop anywhere from $90-$110 million in profits.
Public reaction to the strike reflects a change in the tide of sentiment toward unions. A Gallup poll last August showed that 62% of Americans support unions, which is a 15 year high.
Customer reaction to the Stop & Shop strike is similar to the support for public school teacher strikes in 2018 protesting low pay. This strike, in fact, is nearly as big as the one that shut down all of West Virginia’s schools last year, and follows the 7,700 person Marriott strikes that occurred in eight cities last fall.
2018 was a record year for the number of American workers who went on strike or stopped working because of disagreements with employers. 485,000 people were involved in major work stoppages, the highest amount since 1986.
As labor unrest in the United States continues to grow, the amount of protests and strikes throughout the country is sure to increase.
Photo: Mass Live