After 11-day strike in New England — Stop & Shop workers win gains

May 2019 Conn. May Day

May 1 rally in Stamford, Conn., hosted by Unite Here Local 217 and UFCW Local 371 and Local 919.

By ERWIN FREED and ERNIE GOTTA

The UFCW’s historic 11-day strike that involved over 31,000 Stop and Shop workers and covered all stores in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts came to an end on April 21. As covered at socialistaction.org (April 11), the demand of the union was to maintain all wage, benefit, and work standards codified in the expiring contract.

Stop and Shop and its parent company were pushing for an increase in employee health-care contributions, a move away from pensions, and the creation of off-site meat-packing facilities. The last item would threaten the continued existence of union meat-departments in Stop and Shop stores. From walking the picket lines at many locations, Socialist Action reporters got the picture that the meat department is often a solid defender of rights on the shop-floor, with a disproportionate number of stewards and union activists.

Ultimately, the strike cost the company $110 million in revenue, about $10 million a day for each day of the strike. Negotiations came to a common agreement between union and company representatives, and the terms of a new contract were all ratified between April 21s and May 1 by the five locals.

In general, the workers won the majority of the benefits they fought for, including pay increases, holiday pay for new hires, and guaranteed 20-hour minimum workweeks for part-timers. At the same time, new part-timers do not get time-and-a-half pay on Sundays for the first three years of their employment. They will also have much lower pension benefits, dropping from $225 to $100 per month for those hired after contract ratification.

The contract negotiations were conducted almost, if not completely, behind closed doors. There was virtually no consultation between the union leadership and the rank and file on demands, and the membership was not kept informed about the ongoing developments in negotiations, even during the strike. Many members went in to the ratification votes without even seeing a bullet-point sheet of what they would be voting on, much less the actual proposed contract language.

These decisions on the part of the UFCW leadership made the strike weaker than it had to be. It is true that trade-union consciousness—the understanding of union workers that they must solidarize with each other and be active trade unionists to win economic and political gains—has been historically low since the Reagan/Clinton neoliberal onslaught against organized labor. However, class consciousness is gained through struggle. Leading up to the strike, the most educated rank-and-filers could have been tasked with educating their co-workers about what exactly was at stake in negotiations.

Better yet, the demands themselves could have been decided by committees of delegates elected from the shop floor with full discussion on each point. These committees could bring back the proposed demands to their co-workers to be voted up or down, instead of having the decisions of what demands were worth fighting for rest on the individual union representative. The negotiations themselves could be open-door and live-streamed in part or whole to the membership.

Through a democratic negotiation process that both emphasizes broad rank-and-file participation and at the same time cultivates shop-floor leadership from the most militant and respected workers, the whole strike would be in a better position from the beginning. Stop and Shop workers would be more inspired to reach out to their friends, family, and community members for organizational support.

Thinking about how to carry out a strike ahead of time might lead to ideas that were proposed but were too late to be accomplished during the actual event. Things like setting up car-pools or even coordinating with the bus drivers’ unions to give rides to people that depend on the Stop and Shop for their food could easily have been done. Alongside the videos put out by the UFCW locals and labor solidarity groups there could have been a flurry of resolutions, op-eds, and solidarity statements from all the trade unions, community organizations, and campus groups not just in New England but internationally.

With the 2019 Stop and Shop strike now behind us, there are now 31,000 workers who have been directly involved with a major and mostly successful strike. There are also thousands more workers who have gone through the experience with them, engaging in all sorts of solidarity activities. Now is the time to begin to tear down entrenched divisions in the labor movement. The Stop and Shop Strikes, teachers strikes, and other actions in the recent strike wave are teaching us that inter-union and community-union solidarity, as well as organs of real rank-and-file control in the unions, are key to rebuilding a fighting labor movement.

In Stamford, Conn., a small but important first step was made on May 1. The rank-and-file organizing committee of Unite Here Local 217 along with Local 217’s executive board co-sponsored a May Day Rally with UFCW Locals 371 and 919. The latter voted on sponsorship at the contract ratification meeting. Speakers from six different union locals discussed their struggles and the fundamental necessity of workers coming together to support each other’s fights.

UFCW Locals 371 and 919, ATU Local 443, Unite Here! Local 217, SEIU Local 2001, and Rene from the AFL-CIO Western Labor Federation all pledged to support each other’s struggles and build labor solidarity throughout Connecticut.