By Amanda Page-Hoongrajok
On April 11th, 2019, 31,000 workers at Stop & Shop, a regional grocery store chain with more than 240 locations spread across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, went on strike. The striking workers were protesting Stop & Shop’s relentless attempts to cut their retirement benefits, increase the cost of healthcare, and decrease overtime pay. Store closings and community support for the workers pressured Stop & Shop to establish a tentative agreement with the union representing the workers, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which ended the strike on Sunday, April 21st.
The main areas of dispute that triggered the strike were cuts to overtime pay and healthcare costs. During contract negotiations, Stop & Shop wanted to increase employee-paid healthcare premiums, reduce retirement benefits for part-time and newly hired workers, and eliminate overtime pay on Sundays and holidays for new part-time workers (Johnston, 2019b). According to the New York Times, the increase in healthcare costs alone would set full-time workers back $300 a year and part-time workers $200 a year. Lisa Juliano, a striking worker that was interviewed by the Times said, “The extra Sunday pay makes up what I live on day to day. If not for the extra I get on Sundays, I wouldn’t have gas to come to work for the rest of the week.”
Stop & Shop sought these cuts despite healthy levels of revenue and profit. According to a petition sponsored by Jobs with Justice, Stop & Shop hauled in $1.45 billion worth of revenue in the first three quarters of 2018. This represents a 19% increase in revenue from the first three quarters of 2017. Jacobin further reported that Alhold Delhaize, the parent company of Stop & Shop, reported more than $2 billion in profit for 2018 and engaged in $880 million worth of stock buybacks, which effectively enrich the owners of the company’s stock.
Once the strike began, the effects were immediate. The Boston Globe reported that dozens of stores were closed due to the strike, and the stores that remained open experienced limited hours and service:
“The Stop & Shop on Newport Avenue in Quincy was eerily quiet Tuesday morning, the hum of refrigeration and chattering of product ads over the intercom among the only signs of life in the largely empty store. The deli and meat departments were dark, their counters mostly bare, and the produce display for bananas was barren.”
The Boston Globe further reported that within the first few days of the strike, visits to Stop & Shop declined by 75%. Stop & Shop competitors like Market Basket and Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, saw a spike in visits to their stores.
The clear costs of the strike prompted Stop & Shop to concede the majority of their desired cuts. The tentative agreement that was reached protects employee overtime pay and does not increase healthcare costs. According to a direct statement from the UFCW, “The agreement preserves health-care and retirement benefits, provides wage increases, and maintains time and a half pay on Sunday for current members.” The members will vote to accept or reject the new contract but have returned to work at stores.
In a time of historically low union membership, this strike contributes to the displays of worker power in recent years. In 2016, Verizon workers stepped out of their stores and onto the picket line to protest job security and flexibility. In 2018, public teachers across the U.S. protested poor working conditions and low pay. The Stop & Shop strike, which represents the largest private sector strike since Verizon, is just one more addition to this ongoing movement. This, once again, has proved, “the people, united, will never be defeated.”
Amanda Page-Hoongrajok is a graduate student in economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Sources: Liza Featherstone, “Stop Shopping at Stop & Shop,” Jacobin; Sandra Garcia, “Stop & Shop Workers Are on Strike at Over 240 Stores in New England,” The New York Times; Jake Johnson, “‘When Workers Fight, Workers Win’: Union Declares Victory as Stop & Shop Strike Ends With Deal to Raise Wages,” Common Dreams; Katie Johnston, “Visits by loyal Stop & Shop customers decline 75 percent during strike,” The Boston Globe; Katie Johnston, “As strike goes on, effect on Stop & Shop is increasing.” The Boston Globe; Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, “We Stand with Stop & Shop Workers!,” The Action Network; United Food and Commercial Workers, “UFCW Announces Tentative Agreement for Stop & Shop Workers.”