Why Workers at the Biggest Grocery Chain in New England Just Authorized a Strike

Michael Arria March 1, 2019

Customers wait in line to purchase food at Stop & Shop in Boston, Massachusetts as people prepare for Hurricane Sandy on October 28, 2012. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

​On Feb­ru­ary 24, a union rep­re­sent­ing more than 8,000 Mass­a­chu­setts work­ers at the super­mar­ket chain Stop & Shop over­whelm­ing­ly vot­ed to autho­rize a strike. The vote came just one day after the company’s three-year labor agree­ment with its employ­ees expired. Stop & Shop is the largest gro­cery chain in New England.

Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 1445 is one five unions that rep­re­sent Stop & Shop work­ers in the New Eng­land area, bar­gain­ing on behalf of more than 8,000 employ­ees across over 60 stores. In an inter­view with In These Times, the union’s polit­i­cal direc­tor, Jim Car­val­ho, said that Stop & Shop is ask­ing for noth­ing but con­ces­sions” from its employ­ees. Although he said the union couldn’t dis­cuss spe­cif­ic details regard­ing the dis­pute while the con­tract is being nego­ti­at­ed, he did indi­cate that the com­pa­ny is try­ing to dras­ti­cal­ly raise the cost of health­care and attack its work­ers’ pensions.

The vote doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that there will be a work stop­page. Local 1445 also autho­rized a strike in 2016, and it nev­er occurred. But now, with this autho­riza­tion, the union can go on strike at any time.

The four oth­er unions are plan­ning to hold strike autho­riza­tion votes in the near future. UFCW Local 1459, which rep­re­sents 1,300 employ­ees, has already announced that its vote will take place on March 10. And although the oth­er unions haven’t autho­rized a stop­page, they released state­ments to coin­cide with Local 1445’s vote crit­i­ciz­ing the company’s pro­posed poli­cies — and made it clear that strikes are a possibility.

Local 1445 has also made it clear that the com­pa­ny is try­ing to elim­i­nate time and a half” pay for Sun­days and hol­i­days, which is secured in the work­ers’ cur­rent con­tract. Mass­a­chu­setts is one of two states where retail work­ers are required to make 1.5 times their usu­al hourly rate dur­ing Sun­days and fed­er­al hol­i­days. Mass­a­chu­setts law­mak­ers are try­ing to phase out the prac­tice, cit­ing the fact that the state’s min­i­mum wage is sched­uled to increase over the next five years. Local labor groups are fight­ing the move, not­ing that, even if the phase-out is passed, retail­ers would still have the option of pay­ing their employ­ees time and a half.”

Celine has worked at Stop & Shop’s Fram­ing­ham loca­tion for 29 years. I immi­grat­ed to this coun­try, and being part of the union has enabled me to build a life,” she told In These Times, request­ing that only her first name be used. The company’s pro­pos­als are com­plete­ly unac­cept­able. They want to strip us of our ben­e­fits, make health­care unaf­ford­able, and take away time and a half’ [pay]. These are very big issues that affect our lives.”

We made this com­pa­ny what it is, it’s doing so well, and we’re just ask­ing for a small sliv­er of the pie,” she added. We need to stand against cor­po­rate greed.”

Stop & Shop put out a state­ment regard­ing the strike vote. Full-time Stop & Shop asso­ciates are among the high­est paid food retail work­ers in the region, and we are work­ing hard to reach strong new con­tracts that will con­tin­ue to pro­vide Stop & Shop asso­ciates with com­pet­i­tive wages and afford­able health care for eli­gi­ble asso­ciates,” it reads. Stop & Shop also has com­mit­ted up to $2 bil­lion to upgrade our stores over the next sev­er­al years to bet­ter serve our cus­tomers and com­mu­ni­ties as we also low­er prices and expand oppor­tu­ni­ties for our associates.”

Stop & Shop is owned by the Dutch-Bel­gian retail com­pa­ny Ahold Del­haize, whose fis­cal sales in 2018 reached $71.49 bil­lion. Pub­licly, the com­pa­ny has been extreme­ly sup­port­ive of Don­ald Trump’s cor­po­rate tax cuts. Accord­ing to Car­val­ho, The com­pa­ny has ben­e­fit­ed great­ly from the tax cuts,” but it’s used its sav­ings to spend bil­lions buy­ing back their own stock.” Carvalho’s asser­tion is backed up by pub­licly avail­able num­bers. The company’s recent third-quar­ter sales far exceed­ed expec­ta­tions: Group sales increased 3.6 per­cent (about $18 bil­lion) over the three-month peri­od, pre­sum­ably boost­ed by the Trump administration’s eco­nom­ic moves. The company’s own web­site acknowl­edges its stock buy­back pro­gram has returned over $9 bil­lion to share­hold­ers since 2010.

Gro­cery stores are the most union­ized retail work­force in the coun­try by a wide mar­gin. While the union-bust­ing tac­tics of giants like Wal­mart and Whole Foods make more head­lines than small­er oper­a­tions like Stop & Shop, the major­i­ty of the UFCW’s 1.3 mil­lion mem­bers are con­nect­ed to the gro­cery indus­try. It’s a sec­tor that’s been under attack in recent years, not just via anti-work­er leg­is­la­tion, but from a pri­vate-equi­ty own­ers who have qui­et­ly bank­rupt­ed numer­ous gro­cery chains, includ­ing oth­er East Coast chains like Fair­way and Tops. As an Amer­i­can Prospect piece from 2018 explains, Pri­vate equi­ty firms have acquired at least 50 gro­cery chains in the last few years — attract­ed to them for their real-estate assets, low debt, and high cash flow. Their strat­e­gy of buy­ing, sell­ing and flip­ping stores under­mines the eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty of work­ers and the sta­bil­i­ty of local communities.”

The spec­tre of automa­tion has also hov­ered over recent gro­cery store labor fights. Ear­li­er this year, Ahold Del­haize intro­duced a robot called Mar­ty” to hun­dreds of its stores. The robot is used to detect poten­tial haz­ards like aisle spills. They com­plain that their costs are high, their labor costs,” Local 1445 pres­i­dent Jeff Bollen told CBS ear­li­er this month. They’re bring­ing in robots, they’re talk­ing about automa­tion, they are get­ting rid of bag­gers, they are get­ting rid of meat cutters.”

Car­val­ho told In These Times that the union has tried to send a clear mes­sage from the begin­ning, stress­ing the need for increased work­er pow­er through videos and social media posts. We hope that peo­ple see what we’re doing,” he said, and it car­ries over regard­less of where they work and even if they’re non-union workers.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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