Thousands of employees of the US supermarket chain Stop & Shop have been protesting for 10 days against a labor contract that includes unfair wages, high health insurance premiums and reduced pension. The protest began on April 11 when more than 30,000 employees staged a walkout. The strike is being organized by United Food & Commercial Workers union. Cashiers, stockers, bakers, deli clerks and butchers from across 240 stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have joined the strike and are picketing their local shops, urging customers to support their cause.
According to the union, the employees decided to strike when their negotiations with Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s parent company, over a new collective bargaining contract reached a deadlock in early April. Their previous 3-year contract expired in February 2019 and the negotiations around the new one were going smoothly until mid-February, when the company introduced a new set of monetary and payroll requirements. The final unfruitful round of negotiations broke down on April 10, and a strike was called the next day.
Under the proposed contract, part-time workers, who make up nearly 75% of the workforce, will not be guaranteed ‘time-and-half’ pay for working on Sundays and holidays. This severely affects employees who are already struggling to earn a living wage, with the company’s average wage being $12-$20 per hour. Employee Lisa Juliano told the New York Times, “If not for the extra I get on Sundays, I wouldn’t have gas to come to work the rest of the week.”
The new contract also targets workers’ healthcare as the company has proposed to raise insurance premiums by $100-$200. This is allegedly to keep up with national healthcare costs. However, according to UFCW, certain employees may end up paying an additional $600-$893 in premiums over time. Stop & Shop also plans on implementing a “spousal exclusion” to its family health care plan under which employees’ spouses would be ineligible for health care coverage if they’re offered health care by their own employer. This will affect more than a 1,000 workers and their spouses, who often rely on a combination of healthcare plans for complete coverage.
Paul Tritto, one of the employees on strike, told NBC News, ““I support a wife who is disabled, and I have a grandson living with me who has special needs. I’m their sole support.” For him under the proposed changes to his health care plan, his out-of-pocket maximums will go up, making the cost “astronomical.”
Newly hired and part-time employees will also experience a deduction in their pension. The new contract seeks to implement a monthly pension benefit reduction of 32% for newly hired full-time employees and 72% for part-time employees.
“Instead of a contract that recognizes the value and hard work that our members provide every day, Stop & Shop has only proposed drastic and unreasonable cuts to health care benefits and take home pay, while replacing real customer service with more serve-yourself checkout machines,” representatives of the local UFCW unions said in a statement. “The men and women who make Stop & Shop a success have earned and deserve affordable health care, a good wage, and the ability to retire with dignity,”
Leading Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have supported the protesters. The company claims that the employees’ demands are “unsustainable” and cannot be met without raising consumer prices. However, financial records show that the company recorded over $2 billion in profits to their shareholders in 2018, and recently voted to give shareholders $880 million in dividend payments.
Stop & Shop is the only major chain in New England with a largely unionized workforce. An increasingly competitive market and recent strikes in other industries have encouraged workers to fight for their rights.
As the strike enters its 11th day, the works stand resolute in their cause. “We’re in this for the long haul,” said Framingham, Massachusetts, employee Celine Blaisdell, who has worked at Stop & Shop for 29 years. “People that went before me fought for me before I was a union member. It’s important for me to do the same.”