Why Workers At The Biggest Grocery Chain In New England Just Authorized A Strike

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Above Photo: 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 CBSearlier 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.”