We should welcome workers' 'powerful victory' in the Stop & Shop strike
© Getty Images

On Sunday evening, in what it called a “powerful victory,” the United Food & Commercial workers union (UFCW) reached a tentative agreement with Stop & Shop management to end a strike by 31,000 workers in over 240 grocery stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, which began April 11. In hindsight, the 11-day strike, the largest retail strike in the U.S. since 2003, could turn out to be one of the most important work stoppages of the past few decades.

The workers struck to resist demands from the company – which is owned by Dutch giant, Royal Ahold Delhaize – for sweeping reductions in health care and pension benefits and reduced pay for Sunday work. But, according to the union, under Sunday’s three-year settlement, existing health care and pension plans and time-and-a-half for Sunday work are maintained. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Stop & Shop demands for health care and pension concessions from some of its lowest paid workers were not borne out of financial necessity. Ahold Delhaize is highly profitable in the United States. In 2018, it generated sales of $44 billion from all its U.S. food businesses (the company also owns the Food Lion, Giant, and Hannaford supermarket chains, and the Peapod grocery delivery service), with Stop & Shop supermarkets contributing about $8 billion of that total. The U.S. accounts for approximately two-thirds of the Dutch multinationals overall revenues. Rather, the company was seeking to claw back hard won worker benefits in order to be more like its non-union, low road rivals. 

Strong Community Support for the Strikers

The strike enjoyed strong support among Stop & Shop workers, other unions, state and national lawmakers, and the New England public. According to the UFCW, virtually no Stop & Shop workers returned to work, while members of the Teamsters and Retail Wholesale Department Store Union (who deliver for Coke, Pepsi and other brands) refused to cross picket lines and make deliveries. Several presidential candidates expressed support for the strikers. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKrystal Ball: Elites have chosen Warren as The One; Lauren Claffey: Is AOC wrong about the Electoral College? Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster MORE of Massachusetts and Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies Bernie Sanders Adviser talks criminal justice reform proposal, 'Medicare for All' plan Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona MORE of Vermont have joined workers on the picket line. Alongside Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona Giuliani says he discussed Biden with Ukrainian official MORE addressed a large rally in Dorchester, Mass., telling the crowd that the company’s efforts to undermine workers’ health and retirement security were “morally wrong.” Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOvernight Defense: Two US service members killed in Afghanistan | Trump calls on other nations to take up fight against ISIS | Pentagon scraps billion-dollar missile defense program ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Sanders targets gig economy as part of new labor plan MORE of New Jersey and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharOvernight Defense: Two US service members killed in Afghanistan | Trump calls on other nations to take up fight against ISIS | Pentagon scraps billion-dollar missile defense program ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill MORE of Minnesota, former HUD Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroHarris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates Castro releases animal welfare plan as part of presidential campaign MORE and Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate National poll finds tight race between Biden, Sanders and Warren MORE of South Bend, Ind., also sent strong messages of support. Even two Connecticut Republican politicians, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Rep. Dave Yaccarino, came out in support of the strikers.

During the strike, formerly loyal Stop & Shop customers deserted the grocery chain in droves – visits were down by an astonishing 75 percent -- thereby driving up business at its closest competitors, Shaws and Star Market. Some New England rabbis stated it “wasn’t Kosher” to patronize Stop & Shop while the strike continued. During the busy Easter retail period, these developments could have signaled financial peril for the company. Realizing the depth of community support for the strikers, Stop & Shop management repeatedly attempted to reassure the public that it supported its “valuable associates” -- workers who have often given decades of service to the company -- even as it moved to weaken their health and pension benefits.

National Implications of the Stop & Shop Strike

The Stop & Shop strike joins a growing list of successful work stoppages throughout the nation. In recent months, teachers in both red and blue states, Marriott hotel workers and several others have won strikes, in most cases with the benefit of strong community support. The stakes a were extremely high for the Stop & Shop strikers, and community support, no matter how deep, did not by itself guarantee victory. The company initially appeared resolutely determined to cut costs, claiming it needed the sweeping concessions because of intense competition in the grocery sector. But if Stop & Shop management had succeeded in gutting the health care and pension benefits of its unionized workforce in New England, it would likely have adopted these tactics actions in other states, and could have encouraged other unionized grocery chains to pursue similar “morally wrong” bargaining tactics. Ahold Delhaize U.S. also owns almost 200 unionized Stop & Shop stores in New York state and hundreds more Food Giant stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia

In recent months, several unionized retailers have sought to emulate the competitive strategies of large non-union retailers like Walmart, Target and Dollar General, which mostly provide workers with low pay and lousy benefits. Kroger, the country’s largest unionized grocery chain, has taken a tough line with its unionized workers, claiming that the arrival of Amazon (which purchased the Whole Foods grocery chain for almost $14 billion in 2017) is a “game changer,” even though it currently faces little direct competition from the e-commerce behemoth. Unionized grocery chains have adopted these hardball tactics before. Fifteen years ago, unionized grocery chains in California told workers that competition from Walmart required sweeping concessions in pay and benefits.

For many working- and middle-class Americans, unions offer the best, and sometimes only, hope for decent health care and reliable retirement security. Millions of Americans are now working long into their retirement years because they lack adequate savings, decent pensions and affordable health care benefits. Since 1985, the number of working pensioners has almost doubled

It was vital that the UFCW did not allow Stop & Shop to undermine its workers’ retirement and health security. Even in a strong economy, a management victory may well have sparked a faster “race to the bottom” in wages and benefits for grocery workers. Striking Stop & Shop struck for a fair settlement. We should welcome their success in protecting decent health care and pension benefits. 

John Logan is Director and Professor of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.