Expensive Robots, Longer Lines, and Pension Cuts

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union calls for Stop & Shop workers to strike across New England for better pay and better benefits.


By Mod Behrens

On the morning of April 13th, dozens of union workers gathered on the side of the road and in front of doors at Northampton’s King Street Stop & Shop store right before opening time. A handful had been there since 6 a.m., holding signs around the empty parking lot and getting supportive honks from passing cars. It was day three of an ongoing strike called by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) with over 31,000 workers picketing at Stop & Shop locations across New England. Locations in Greenfield, Hadley, and Holyoke are also included in the 240 stores currently on strike. UFCW called strikes due to proposed cuts which would affect employee benefits by significantly increasing health care costs and decreasing take home pay. In 2018, Stop & Shop’s parent company (Netherlands-based Ahold Delhaize) earned $2 billion in profits, yet the company’s new cuts would negatively impact employee hours and overtime, which would not only affect the quality of customer service during understaffed hours but mean smaller paychecks and fewer raises for union workers while those at the top continue to profit.

Stop & Shop worker contracts are renewed and reviewed every three years, and on February 23rd, 2019, the current contract between the corporation and five UFCW chapters (328, 919, 1459, 1445, and 371) expired. The strike was called on April 11th after employees initially were asked to continue work while the union negotiated. The company failed to meet worker demands and employees walked.

Picketing workers say that the corporation has been cutting wages and benefits in small amounts each year, and giving fewer and fewer raises. “I’ve been here 18-and-a-half years and I make $14 an hour,” said Lisa Rogers, a cashier at the King Street store. The strike comes after Stop & Shop has cut worker pensions by one third, and removed a former policy which allowed workers to be paid for time and a half on Sundays. Union members stated that they’ve been told they’re overpaid, but many struggle to make ends meet, especially in areas like Northampton where the cost of living is 14% above the national average and minimum wage is only $12/hour (the average full-time work year is 2,000 hours, to meet the $42,000 average cost of living in Northampton, a minimum wage worker would need to work 3,500 per year.) Sick time has also been cut for workers, and unused time no longer rolls over or is paid back; instead it disappears at the end of each year.

“Our hours have been so cut back that we have lines, and customers complain,” another cashier explained. “But these are the only hours we’re allowed to have.” The same employee, who requested to remain anonymous, said it’s obvious to the workers that the company has the money to spend on better working conditions. Multiple workers mentioned the recent introduction of Marty, the robot, who appeared in our most recent “See Something, Say Something” column. Their complaints were not that the robots had taken anyone’s jobs, but that they had cost each store upwards of $30,000, money which could have gone to better wages for human employees. Marty’s job in stores is to alert these human employees of aisle spills and clean-up needs, but before the robot entered stores, there was no problem with messes being ignored. “Despite being understaffed, all the work is done by us,” the cashier said. “There are no spills, because we’ve already cleaned them up. It’s a waste of money.”

Many union members also brought up the 11.1% raise which corporate shareholders voted to give themselves on April 10th, a day before the strike was called. This raise is expected to give a payout of over $880 million on April 25th to those at the very top. “So they clearly have the money,” Rogers stated. She and other union members are currently going without pay until a negotiation is reached between Stop & Shop and UFCW. “I take care of my mother who lives with me,” she said. “She’s 82 and I made sure to pick up a month’s worth of her medication from the pharmacy before we went on strike. I just hope this ends before then and corporate is willing to come to the table.”

“I think corporate ideally wants to work towards there being no union at all,” said another worker on the Northampton picket line Saturday morning. “They don’t understand that if they treat their workers well, we’ll be happy to be there.”

“We don’t want to be out here, we’d rather be in there working,” said Shelby, a front-end manager who only gave her first name. “This is about fair wages, healthcare, benefits, the pensions they’re trying to cut. It’s not just affecting the people who’ve been here for ten or 20-plus years. It’s affecting everybody who’s going to be hired in the future. So the next generation, when they’re trying to get their first job, we’re fighting for them too.”

The last Stop & Shop strike occurred in 1988, but it took less than 24 hours to resolve, another union member said. “We called the strike at 1 p.m., and by 3 a.m. that morning I was called back in.” Despite this being the first strike in over 30 years, so far workers haven’t heard any updates from corporate or UFCW as of April 14th. Many are hoping that the timing right before Easter (which brings a huge profit for the company in everything from Easter hams to fresh flowers) will put extra pressure on Stop & Shop to come to a resolution with the union.

As of now, stores in Western Massachusetts have had varied success bringing in scabs, but not nearly enough to keep a running store. “We think they’re bringing them in through the warehouse,” one union member said. “But in that warehouse we still have trucks that have remained for 24 hours unloaded, because there’s no one there who knows how to unload and re-package the product.” (Due to the plastic bag ban in Northampton, products which arrive wrapped in plastic must be re-bagged before retail.) All new workers who agree to cross the picket line and work during the strike are currently being paid $25/hour, over twice what minimum wage union employees make.

There have also been a variety of community responses to the strike, which in Northampton have been mostly positive. Community members have brought food and coffee to the picket line at all hours, and many have offered rides to the nearby Big Y for those unable to access other large-scale grocery stores. Workers on strike have also been supported by Big Y management itself, who have been sending pizzas, gift cards, and gas vouchers to union members across all Pioneer Valley locations. Other unions (both local and national) have also publicly shown support, including Northampton Firefighters Local 108, the Teamsters (Local 404 in Western Massachusetts), and members of the Northampton Association of School Employees among others. “Some Verizon folks stopped by yesterday,” said a florist  and union member who worked at the King Street location. “They just had their big strike in 2016, so they’re very sympathetic to our struggle.”

***

On the evening of Sunday, April 14th at sundown, striking Stop & Shop workers at Holyoke’s Lincoln Street location were calling for extra help on the picket line as they expected a truck to try and come through to deliver to the store. The picket line stood still, stretching across the whole front of the building and onto the street corner where the truck was expected by 8 p.m.. As workers stood with signs, they tried to dissuade potential customers by explaining the strike. Multiple union members fluent in Spanish were also positioned to speak to community members who did not speak English. Like in Northampton, the usually full parking lot was nearly empty, with the majority of Holyoke residents sympathetic to the strike demands, aside from a small few who pretended not to see or hear the picketers or, in the worst cases, flipped them off or made rude comments.

“People who have been here for 35 years are still only making $15/hour,” said a union member at the Holyoke store. “We’re not asking for more than what we had, we’re just asking for our benefits to stop getting smaller every year and to have the contract we initially signed on with.” She said that she thought the delivery truck might not come that night because of the pressure from UFCW. “But if they do, we plan to block it. It’s illegal to stand in the way of the road, but if we keep moving, they can’t stop us.”

By 8 p.m. when the store closed, the truck had not arrived. “The strike is over for the day,” a few workers shouted as management locked the doors for the night. The workers had been prepared to stay until midnight in case the truck came after the usual time to avoid the picket line, but as each manager inside the store locked up and left for the night, the union members considered it a win. There was no way the truck could come to an empty locked building. “We were expecting to have to stay here for many more hours,” one woman said. “I’m happy to know that at least today, we’ve stopped them from coming in.”

“The company has lost $6.6 million in the four days since we’ve been on strike,” said a man who had been standing near the road with a UFCW sign around his neck. “That’s more than enough money lost to be worth paying us a little extra. With that loss and Easter in a week? I bet they’ll come to an agreement by Wednesday. This will be over within the week.”

As of the publication of this article, workers are still on strike and the union is waiting to reach a negotiation with Stop & Shop.


Mod Behrens is social media coordinator for The Shoestring and a frequent contributor.

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! Please donate to The Shoestring on Patreon.