Stop & Shop Workers Vote to Ratify Contract—Although Benefits Will Shrink for New Part-Timers

The new 3-year contract with Stop & Shop protects some benefits for current employees, but also contains a two-tiered system.

Jeremy Gantz

More than 31,000 Stop & Shop grocery store employees were on strike April 11–21 across New England, the largest U.S. retail strike since 2003. (Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In the week lead­ing up to East­er, one of the year’s busiest weeks for gro­cery shop­ping, the Stop & Shop super­mar­ket in Northamp­ton was vir­tu­al­ly emp­ty. Out­side, pick­eters ate fresh, home­made que­sadil­las while hold­ing signs announc­ing their demands. The 10-day strike was one of the largest the U.S. pri­vate sec­tor had seen in years.

The grocery chain also hired temporary truck drivers and warehouse workers after about 1,000 Teamsters union members refused to cross picket lines.

Local res­i­dent Karen Axel­rod stood near­by, hand­ing out more que­sadil­las. Nor­mal­ly, Axel­rod shops at Stop & Shop, but after 31,000 Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) union mem­bers across New Eng­land walked off the job April 11, she want­ed to sup­port the strike. Some­one on Face­book sug­gest­ed pro­vid­ing a fresh­ly cooked meal. I’m pro-union, I’m a lefty, my par­ents would have want­ed me to do this,” Axel­rod says, alu­minum-foiled plat­ter in hand.

Inside the west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts store, the bak­ery was closed, along with the deli, meat and seafood coun­ters. The pro­duce selec­tion was hit or miss. A sin­gle-dig­it skele­ton crew of work­ers out­num­bered cus­tomers, and only self-ser­vice check­out was avail­able. To keep the lights on at the company’s 246 stores in Rhode Island, Con­necti­cut and Mass­a­chu­setts, Stop & Shop brought in replace­ment work­ers and sent cor­po­rate office employ­ees to man the stores.

The gro­cery chain also hired tem­po­rary truck dri­vers and ware­house work­ers after about 1,000 Team­sters union mem­bers refused to cross UFCW pick­et lines. Man­age­ment had to scram­ble to get food into stores and trash out the doors.

Ratch­et­ing up pres­sure on the com­pa­ny was pos­si­ble thanks to pick­et line pro­tec­tion lan­guage in Team­ster con­tracts, says Sean O’Brien, pres­i­dent of Team­sters Local 25. We enforced that lan­guage — we will nev­er cross a pick­et line,” O’Brien says. After their shifts were over, hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of Team­sters would go down and walk the pick­et lines.”

Giv­en the hol­i­day, the tim­ing of the strike was par­tic­u­lar­ly rough for Stop & Shop, owned by Dutch retail giant Ahold Del­haize. The com­pa­ny report­ed­ly lost between $90 mil­lion and $110 mil­lion in sales, or about 3% of pro­ject­ed 2019 profits.

Out on the pick­et line in Northamp­ton, Susan Jacob­sen and her col­leagues saw sol­i­dar­i­ty first­hand: Local elect­ed offi­cials and cus­tomers joined in. Rab­bis across the region told con­gre­ga­tions it’s not kosher” to shop at Stop & Shop ahead of Passover. A hand­ful of U.S. pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates joined pick­et lines, too. And mem­bers of a slew of unions — teach­ers, nurs­es, build­ing trades work­ers and pub­lic sec­tor work­ers — all helped sup­port strik­ing work­ers by join­ing pick­et lines and pro­vid­ing resources, O’Brien says.

It’s been absolute­ly fab­u­lous,” says Jacob­sen, 72, a mem­ber of UFCW Local 1459. A bak­ery work­er with Stop & Shop for 21 years, this was her first-ever strike. She pick­et­ed every day.

If you firm­ly believe in the principes you’re stand­ing for, there’s noth­ing oner­ous about it,” Jacob­sen says. Peo­ple need to stand up for what’s right.”

Not­ing it is the only ful­ly union­ized gro­cery chain in New Eng­land, one with a pen­sion plan and above-indus­try wages, Stop & Shop said it need­ed to adapt to mar­ket con­di­tions” to com­pete with behe­moths like Wal­mart and Whole Foods/​Amazon. The com­pa­ny pro­posed rais­ing health­care pre­mi­ums, freez­ing over­time rates for part-time work­ers (who make up 75% of its work­force) and reduc­ing pen­sion ben­e­fits for non-vest­ed employees.

UFCW mem­bers viewed these pro­pos­als as steps toward a two-tiered work­force, with full-time Stop & Shop employ­ees at one lev­el and part-time work­ers at another.

I don’t think it’s right — it should all be equal,” says Mike Landry, an assis­tant meat man­ag­er who’s worked for 37 years at the Northamp­ton store. That’s why the union is fighting.”

The strike end­ed April 21 with the UFCW claim­ing vic­to­ry, say­ing in a state­ment, The agree­ment pre­serves health­care and retire­ment ben­e­fits, pro­vides wage increas­es, and main­tains time-and-a-half pay on Sun­day for cur­rent members.”

But details were fuzzy as of press time, with UFCW mem­bers gear­ing up for rat­i­fi­ca­tion votes. The union fend­ed off many con­ces­sions, but, if approved, the con­tracts would result in future part-time hires see­ing small­er com­pa­ny pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions and not being guar­an­teed Sun­day time-and-a-half pay for their first three years, Bloomberg report­ed. Essen­tial­ly, this would be a scaled-back ver­sion of the orig­i­nal­ly pro­posed two-tiered system.

David Morse, a UFCW Local 371 mem­ber in the Northamp­ton store’s seafood depart­ment, said he’d be dis­ap­point­ed if future part-time hires see frozen over­time pay or reduced pen­sion ben­e­fits. But, it won’t stop me from vot­ing for it,” he says. We went through hell just to get what we have.”

Across the coun­try, union­ized chains are on the defen­sive. There’s noth­ing left of Shaw’s, A&P, Path­mark, Waldbaum’s, Tops and Grand Union,” indus­try ana­lyst Burt Flickinger told the Hart­ford Courant. The Wal­mart bear is eat­ing all the union competition.”

I did this for oth­er people’s chil­dren, for my grand­chil­dren,” Jacob­sen says as she restocks a shelf with cakes on her first day back at work. We have got to stop this, putting peo­ple in tiny wages with no benefits.”

Jere­my Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/​Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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