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.
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 an In These Times contributing editor working at Time magazine.