From the Long Island peninsula to the Massachusetts Cape, from Rhode Island throughout all of Connecticut, thousands of members of United Food and Commercial Workers voted in their union locals in favor of authorizing a regional strike in order to force their employer to renegotiate terms more favorable to the employees.
Despite being New England’s number-one grocery retailer, achieving over $2 billion in profits in 2018, and recently receiving generous tax cuts, the corporate directors of Stop & Shop have proposed staggering rollbacks in their employees’ wages, pensions, and benefits. This is not being done at a time where the company is teetering on bankruptcy, nor is it even losing business.
Upon expiration of the previous employee contract on Feb. 24, 2019, these new demands essentially propose to strip hard-working union members, both full and part-time, of nearly every benefit they have earned and that they have enjoyed for decades. In turn, the union locals and their membership have accused the company of negotiating in bad faith and thus have refused all of their demands.
Of the five union locals affected by this new contract, representing over 31,000 workers, all have voted unanimously not to yield to any of the rollbacks and instead authorized their union leaders to call a strike in the event of continued bad faith on the part of their employer.
The unions have been negotiating a new contract with the company since Jan. 14, well before the previous contract expired, and yet it appears as if the company is bent on pursuing rollbacks and refusing to budge on its principle demands. The new contract, currently offered by the employer, wasn’t even released until March 8. The cuts proposed by the company are staggering at best, and corrupt and insulting at worst.
It appears as if the meat-cutters’ union, Local 371, is among those facing the most severe cutbacks. The company intends on opening a new meat-packaging plant in Massachusetts, and rather than sending uncut meat directly to the grocery stores, doing all of the meat cutting and packaging itself. This, in effect, would demote all current meat cutters to mere “meat clerks” and would be heavily reflected in their wages. Most long-time meat cutters currently make $20 or around $30 an hour, yet this new policy would bump them all down to a mere $15 an hour. As for the meat managers, they would see a pay reduction from their current $850 a week to $700 per week.
In response to the company’s revealing its plans to essentially downgrade the quality of their meat to the pre-packaged variety, union representatives stated that the public would be dissatisfied with the result. The company responded, “We will train customers how to shop.” Needless to say, these measures are nothing the workers nor their unions are willing to accept; over 600 union members of Local 371 who attended their subsequent union meeting voted unanimously to strike.
The rollbacks that the rest of the employees face are nearly as severe. In terms of wages: for full-timers who became full-time after April 17, 2016, their wages would max out upon reaching $17 an hour, a position currently maxing out at $18, and once reached, doing away with raises altogether and instead offering them a $750 yearly bonus; for part-timers who have seven or more years of service, their yearly raises would be 25 cents a year for three years; while part timers with three to six years of seniority will receive 20 cents a year for the next three years.
As it is now, any employee can earn up to five weeks of paid vacation time once they have worked with the company for 25 years. Under the proposed contract, part-timers hired after 2016 would max out at two weeks of paid vacations.
Employees currently enjoy having Sunday as a non-mandatory workday, arguably the busiest day of the week for grocery stores. All employees who have been employed for over a year receive time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked on Sundays, while employees who have been employed under a year receive an extra dollar an hour for Sunday pay. But the company’s proposal includes reducing Sunday to a normal workday. This would mean no extra pay for the by far busiest workday, which now constitutes a substantial portion of most employees’ weekly checks.
As a rule, all part-time union members must maintain a 15-hour minimum workweek with the exclusion of Sunday. Although the proposed contract would increase this minimum to 20 hours per week, it would in turn include Sunday as part of the workweek.
Wages are primarily the most substantial condition of employment, but benefits also play a crucial role in the wellbeing of the employees. The benefits of UFCW members are among the best within the industry. Stop & Shop has made clear that they no longer intend to contribute to any employee’s pension, nor provide a pension to anyone hired after 2016.
Full-timers with no family currently pay $13 a week, while full-timers with a family plan pay $26 per week for health-care coverage. The company’s demands would more than double these costs, requiring an employee to pay $36.14 and $53.13 a week respectively. Employees who currently enjoy a prescription plan of a modest $4 fee per prescription will now pay a $25 minimum for each of their prescriptions. On top of all these disgraceful demands, the company has the audacity to ask the union to give back $200 million toward employees’ health insurance costs.
Local 919 held their membership meeting on March 10, which more than 700 concerned members attended in order to be briefed on the details of what their employer had demanded. Tensions were high as union president Mark A. Espinosa explained exactly what was at stake. He then asked the crowd to stand and express any disagreements they had with constituting a strike. Not a single member stood up. Subsequently, when asked to stand in an approval to strike, the room exploded in cheers and applause by nearly the entire audience—an unanimous vote to strike.
This is the closest the union employees have come to striking in over 30 years. The last strike Stop & Shop experienced was in 1988 and it lasted for less than 24 hours. Some union stewards speculate that the reason for the company’s outrageous demands derive from new legislation in Massachusetts both raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and not requiring employers to pay overtime for Sundays or holidays.
The union locals now return to the negotiating table with the authorization of a strike vote in their back pocket. Negotiations resumed on March 12, while tens of thousands of union workers returned to work awaiting the call from their representatives to walk out. At this point, a strike seems likely.
If one thing is certain, both the union members as well as the unions themselves have banded together and refused to back down while not giving in to the greed of their wealthy employer. Many customers have shown their support for the employees and have pledged to not cross the picket line.