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

Private-sector paycheck-to-paycheck types remind the country what collective action can achieve.

A large crowd attends a strike rally at a Boston-area Stop&Shop on April 18. CREDIT: Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images
A large crowd attends a strike rally at a Boston-area Stop&Shop on April 18. CREDIT: Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

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.

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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.