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

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

On Wednesday, May Day, the last of five United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals ratified a new three-year contract with Stop & Shop, following a 10-day strike—one of the largest the U.S. private sector has seen in years. Workers at Local 1459 in Springfield, Mass., voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new contract—in line with near-unanimous approvals by four other locals since the strike ended April 21.

The strike began in the week leading up to Easter, when 31,000 UFCW union members across New England walked off the job after Stop & Shop said it needed to “adapt to market conditions” to compete with behemoths like Walmart and Whole Foods/Amazon. Noting it is the only fully unionized grocery chain in New England, one with a pension plan and above-industry wages, 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.”

Given the Easter holiday, one of the year’s busiest weeks for grocery shopping, 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.

At one Stop & Shop in Northampton, Mass., the supermarket was virtually empty while picketers held signs outside, discouraging shoppers from entering the store. Inside, 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.”

Out on the picket line in Northampton, Susan Jacobsen, 72, a member of UFCW Local 1459, 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. 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 principles you’re standing for, there’s nothing onerous about it,” Jacobsen says. “People need to stand up for what’s right.”

When asked whether he would vote to ratify a new contract, 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 said. “We went through hell just to get what we have.”

When the strike ended, there was plenty for the UFCW to celebrate. Stop & Shop gave up its push to force employees’ spouses to take any health insurance offered by their own employer. The union also said Stop & Shop “kept healthcare affordable” with “low deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.” The new contracts also hold the line on all sick time, personal days and paid holidays for current and future employees—Stop & Shop had wanted to reduce paid holidays and sick days for future employees.

But the company got some of what it wanted as well. New part-time workers won’t see time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays, as current employees do. Instead, they’ll get a premium (e.g., an extra $1.50 per hour the first year) that will grow to a time-and-a-half rate after three years of employment. And then there’s this: The new contracts significantly reduce pension benefits for new part-time hires. While a current part-timer gets $225 per month after working 10 years, a new part-time would get $100, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported.

“It came down to, we had to get people back to work,” Tim Melia, president of Local 328 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. “There were a few things we weren’t that happy with. At the end of the day,” he said, “we had to accept this contract, and it was worth bringing back to the members.”

But across the country, unionized chains are still 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.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at In These Times. 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. A

Stop & Shop workers win pay, benefits concessions after 11-day strike

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

New England grocery store workers have won significant concessions from the Dutch firm that rules their day-to-day lives after an 11-day strike, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced Monday.

More than 30,000 Stop & Shop employees walked off the job on April 11 after negotiators from Netherlands-based multinational food retailer Ahold Delhaize spent weeks insisting the grocer’s frontline workforce would have to absorb higher health care costs and major changes to retirement benefits.

Such collective action has become rare in the private sector, where union membership levels are at historic lows and complex ownership arrangements involving multinational holding companies have attenuated the connection between the people who do a business’ actual work and the well-to-do executives calling the shots.

But the nearly two-week work stoppage drew high-profile support from both local and national leaders. Multiple 2020 presidential primary contenders visited striking workers in person, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), and former Vice President Joe Biden (D). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) also showed their faces and shared supportive remarks at rallies with the strikers. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) tweeted their support for the cause.

Attention from such dignitaries doubtless helped tighten the screws on the Dutch negotiating team. But local reports are crediting a humbler source of moral leadership for the ultimate resolution of the conflict, which was announced late on Easter Sunday by both the union and the grocer.

A slew of rabbis and Christian clergy around southern New England urged their congregations to honor the strikers by taking their Passover and Eastern business elsewhere.

“We encourage our members to celebrate the upcoming holiday in a manner that honors both the Jewish value of freedom and workers’ dignity,” Rabbis Allison Berry and Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts, wrote to their congregants in an email.

“I just personally wasn’t comfortable crossing the picket line,” Rev. Laura Goodwin of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sutton, Massachusetts, told local reporters. “Flowers are nice, but they’re not as important as people’s livelihood.”

Civic solidarity of that kind can be essential to making a strike work.

When the private sector was more broadly organized decades ago, workers who voted to strike at any given firm knew they would be tapping into a resource much more powerful than any one store. Unionized suppliers and distribution partners would refuse to cross a picket line, amplifying the strike’s immediate impacts almost automatically. With union membership levels down by two thirds since the 1970s, however, modern strikes are a lonelier and more daunting prospect. Without assurances of meaningful support from colleagues, the success or failure of any given worker action rests more with customers themselves.

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Losing the holiday weekend likely put a substantial blemish on Stop & Shop’s 2019 books. Sales directly tied to Easter and Passover typically make up 3% of the firm’s yearly revenue, an industry analyst told Boston’s local NBC station, and the strike was probably costing the firm about $2 million a day even before factoring in the holiday.

That squeeze has now achieved what months of earnest discussion at the bargaining table could not, union officials announced Sunday night. The Dutch firm had reportedly sought sweeping cuts to compensation, including a higher employee charge for health care that would have dragged take-home pay lower. The firm also wanted to end pension offerings for new hires.

Neither side offered much detail about the deal struck Sunday. But both the UFCW and the corporate communications team for Stop & Shop described the new contract agreement as preserving the current terms on retirement benefits and health care cost-sharing. Workers across the 31,000-member union in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut stores will see wage increases as well, according to the statements.

Though private-sector workers have been less prone to strike lately than teachers’ unions and other public-sector labor groups, the apparent success of the protracted action in New England offers a reminder that collective-action tactics remain effective despite their declining use.

Fast food workers spent years agitating for union rights and a $15 hourly pay floor, racking up a series of local minimum wage victories while reshaping the lobbying alliances that have long protected the industry’s exploitative and publicly subsidized business model. Toys-R-US employees were able to extract a large payout from the private equity vultures that had seized the dying brand and stiffed loyal longtime staff thanks to similarly adamant protest work.

A protracted strike by Marriott hotel workers last fall also ultimately produced a negotiated agreement.

But it also afforded Americans a glimpse at how tenuous labor solidarity has become most of a century after unions forced robber baron capitalists to accept ideas like “dignity” and “safety” and “having a weekend.” Even athletes, perhaps the most culturally prominent union members in the modern U.S. economy, failed to respect the Marriott picket line during last fall’s Major League Baseball playoffs.

About the Author: Alan Pyke covers poverty and the social safety net for ThinkProgress.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

The Stop & Shop Strike Is Showing There’s Still Power in a Union

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Roughly 31,000 employees of the northeastern grocery chain Stop & Shop have been on strike for nearly a week across more than 240 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The workers, represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), walked out on April 11 after voting to authorize the strike in March. During what is reportedly the largest private sector strike in three years, talks continued Tuesday, with neither side able to make an agreement.

Stop & Shop is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a retail company based in The Netherlands. Ahold Delhaize is a $44 billion company, and it’s saved millions thank to the corporate tax breaks implemented by the Trump administration. Workers say that, despite these numbers, Stop & Shop is attempting to cut employee pensions, raise the cost of healthcare and roll back overtime pay. They’re also concerned about the company’s rising use of automation, which many believe will lead to inevitable layoffs.

The workers have received vast support throughout the community, while the stores have been forced to scrape by with temporary staff in many areas. An employee named Temika who works at a store in Providence uploaded a Facebook video detailing what the current state of the store. “I had a family member go in today and just take a look around,” she said, continuing, “It looked terrible. The prepared foods, the deli, the seafood department, the bakery—everything was shut down. The tables looked exactly the way they looked the day [everybody went on strike], which means they haven’t been rotating anything.”

The current state of Stop & Shop should be a legitimate concern for the company. The Southern California grocery strike of 2003 to 2004 led to the establishment of new grocery chains and customers shifting their allegiances after they began shopping at different stores. The same trend could very well impact New England. Customer Gail Zulla told a local news station that she used to shop at a Providence location of Stop & Shop but had been picking up her groceries at the local rival Shaw’s. “It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen a Shaw’s in my life,” she said, “It’s like it’s a snow storm. There’s no bread, there’s nothing.” She said she’ll take her business elsewhere while the strike is underway, adding, “maybe I’ll stay at Shaw’s.”

When In These Times spoke with UFCW Local 1445 political director Jim Carvalho last month, he said that the union was hoping other workers would be inspired by the actions of the Stop & Shop employees. This appears to have born out. The striking workers have received solidarity from faith groups, other unions and local lawmakers. Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven told The New Haven Register, “Any food purchased by crossing a picket line or from scab workers is not kosher for Passover.” The Teamsters Council 10 has stopped picking up trash for the company, and Massachusetts Democratic Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren showed up at a picket line with coffee and donuts for the employees. “These giant companies think they can knock unions back,” Warren told the Somerville crowd on April 12. “Unions are here to stay because when you’re fighting for your family, you stay in the fight until you win.”

After a video of Boston Bruins legend Ray Bourque leaving a Stop & Shop was posted on social media, the former hockey player felt compelled to release a statement via Twitter. “Being a union hockey player for 22 years I respect Unions and the work that they do.” Bourque tweeted. “I have a medical condition that I was preparing for this morning and mistakenly crossed the picket line at Stop & Shop. On my way out I apologized immediately. I support the employees of Stop & Shop and once my medical condition is resolved I plan on returning to stand in solidarity and will walk the picket line alongside the members of the union.”

While unionization is declining throughout the country, Massachusetts—where most Stop & Shop stores are located—has actually experienced a sizable uptick. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of workers who consider themselves part of a union went up by 16% from 2017 to 2018.

However, Stop & Shop remains one of the only remaining unionized stores in the industry, as big-box retailers like Walmart have put others out of business in recent years. As grocery industry analyst Burt Flickinger recently told The Boston Globe,“Stop & Shop is the last, best, and final hope for the great Roman empires of unionized food retail chains.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

31,000 New England grocery workers strike

Monday, April 15th, 2019

More than 30,000 grocery store workers are on strike in New England after negotiations stalled between the workers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Stop & Shop, the region’s biggest grocery chain.

“Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, saw over $2 billion in profit last year and got a US tax cut of $225 million in 2017,” the union said in a statement. “While Stop & Shop continues to propose drastically cutting worker benefits, Ahold shareholders voted on April 10 to give themselves an 11.1 percent raise in dividends over last year. The expected payout will be on April 25 for around $880 million.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined workers at a picket line on Friday, bringing donuts and telling them, “You fight for the dignity of working people.” Sens. Kamala HarrisKirsten GillibrandCory Booker, and Bernie Sanders also tweeted their support, as did fellow Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and numerous Democratic members of Congress.

What you can do: DON’T cross the picket line. DO contact your local store to let them know you support the workers and want management to offer a fair deal. DO express support for workers on social media and, if you pass a picket line, in person. DO keep shopping at union stores if there’s one near you—see that list for options.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.
This article was originally printed at Daily Kos on April 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
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